As a north-western European, there seems an obvious failure of political leadership at the civic level, with little thought in city hall as to how Detroit might be reimagined if it is not a car producing factory town. It makes one more content with economic initiatives like Brainport in Eindhoven or civic cultural ambitions in other European cities that are steered by democratic local government. Here landlords and private investors seem ridculously short termist, if art as a regeneration tool is mnetioned it is in terms of artists themselves providing the payback directly , not investing in a longer term process of tramsformation through gentrification etc. The artist initiative 555 for instance is being thrown out of their building before any glimmer of improvement to the economic conditions. Instead, their literal investment in the building in terms of cleaning and structural improvements will perhaps squeeze out a tiny profit for the shortsighted landlord. While I am very dubious of the critical value of the longer-term, planned economic instrumentalisation of art, at least it offers space and resources for artists to produce their own critical frames in the meantime - which is often enough to produce some excellent new work. It is also odd that this imaginative civic vacuum is happening at a time when there is certainly a new sense of political agency coming from the Obama government, combined with its apparant desire to remake the democratic context by speaking directly to constituencies and demanding an emotional change in social relations and senses of mutual responsibility. It is beginning to be inspiring to be in the USA again. Early days…but oh so much better than the last 20 years of end of history, triangulation, war on terror and all the rest of the crap excuses for exploitation.
In Detroit, or more precisely Hamtramck a city state within the larger conurbation. The last two days were spent thinking around and about the idea of buying a property or investing in some appropriate way in the art systems of this city. What strikes almost everyone who comes here immediately is the unmitigated potential of the infrastructure in this place. Driving or walking round its unoccupied houses and factories, almost forces the words “but you could do so much here!” our of your month before you can stop yourself….yet stop yourself you should because, though true, it is a reaction that leaves so much unsaid and ununderstood. For while the civic authorities have been in some kind of crisis for years, people here have got used to living “off-the-grid” in ways that are smart and sustainable over time. As they say, money fled long ago so the new recession of 2008-11 is unlikely to have much effect. While residents of the Detroit suburbs might be panicking and foreclosures and empty properties rises to unheard of levels, they are still some way behind the city core itself. Hamtramck’s small-scale retail and production capitalism is already much closer to what I have experienced in Alexandria or Istanbul than to the chain store monoliths in most of the rest of the USA. It doesn’t work that well in terms of shareholder value and rising profitability - but it works enough to allow people to live without always being confronted with their own inadequate purchasing power, as is the case in poor communities in much of the USA.
But why it is then important, at least in my thinking, to avoid seeing new opportunity in every broken down neighbourhood. There are a number of reasons but I think it boils down to a sense that seeing decay as opportunity underestimates or alomost excludes what exists here already and how people are constructing “the world they want to live in” (as Stephanie Smith calls it) within the given situation. Talking to Andrew in Ann Arbor and involved with the Unreal Estate Agency helpfully asked us to see that decay and decline is also creation and growth of something else if we can reframe our expectations - for every empty lot there is another “tree of heaven”, to simplify it. This is an important observation and worth documenting in the way I think he plans but I am not totally sure that such organic growth is sufficiently socially engaged. It comes down again to human agency, the basis of both art and politics, and how much the collective “we” is able to shape its environment or simply respond top changes from outside. The collapse of faith in fundamentalist free market theology here allows for a new sense of this agency to emerge…and here the initiatives of our hosts Design 99 are crucial.
I want to suggest, without growing too rhetorical, that they are working on a new kind of artistic agency, in which relational art and site-specific production (even US land art traditions) are combined.In the area in and around Hamtramck, the collapse of house prices allows for a new way of shaping the urban environment with relatively modest resources. They are buying up property, generating community by inviting others to join while attentively responding to what is here. Their work has precedents in other kinds of intentional communities and projects such as Rick Lowe’s in Houston but it has a different taste, more modest, less openly artistic, crossing disciplines and often just about being in the world in this place and time. For me, it recalls some old thoughts I had around “modest proposals” as a viable artistic strategy in the post-1989 world of no new grand narratives - something that might worth reviving, I suddenly think.
An even more interesting issue for me (or us in the museum) however is if and how we as a museum and art collection should become involved in their process and practice. Some time ago, I talked about how we need to move from a collection of objects to a collection of (inter)relations - something we have begun with a turn to the archive and the museum’s own history, as well as new forms of documenting artistic practice. Design 99 set us a new challenge. To figure out how to “collect” their project (and in doing so, support it) because it seems to offer a new and more radical art form than most of the object production processes that the art market has sustained up until recently. Working out a solution to this will take some time and head stratching, but I am convinced, being here, that it is worth it. More to follow…
I am a bit behind on the blog, for which apologies and a little drama last night in Chicago held us up yet further…of which more later. Partly it has been that both Memphis and Chicago have real art communities with whom we can talk to late into the night.
Going back to Memphis for a brief moment. It was striking to see the proximity of Dr ML King’s assassination site and the monument to Nathaniel Forrester who founded the Klu Klux Klan. It says something very clearly about the profundity of the still existing racial divide and the way that moral ambiguity during the Civil War and Civil Rights still hangs around this part (at least) of the USA. What is interesting to understand is that there never was a kind of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” or coming to terms with the past, after either of these two great revolutionary moments in the last 15o years of US history. Instead, the losers licked their wounds, declared themselves victims of the victors but then got on with preserving as much as possible of the old system. Imagine that state of affairs in post-war Europe and maybe the complexity of this juxtaposition of King and Forrester becomes clearer. It will take time for us to think through how accurate this analogy is, and I am already sure that it fails at certain points. but it is a important antidote to the rhetoric of unhindered (capitalist) progress that I think still captures the foreigners’ imagination of the USA.
In all events, the cultural legacy of the two “civils” (war and rights) remain profound. It means that the civil society and the public sphere cannot really escape a racial reading. The question “who’s public sphere” is answered in terms of race and often religious morality rather than class or economic condition. Certainly, voting patterns in most of the cities we have visited follow strict racial lines and thus mostly elect local African-American representatives. Their ability to count on the racial vote means the politicians themselves are even more subject to the corruption of office than usual - because all critique risks the accusation of racism.
The fight for Civil Rights has made such an accusation deadly (rightly so if true, but not if it blocks political criticality). Thus in memphis, everyone we spoke to seemed to acknowledge the deep corruption of the mayor yet none were certain he would be voted out of office. This cyncism for the democratic process - which has its equivalents all over the world - seems to me much more dangerous than we would like to admit. If it becomes accepted we enter a period of dark political stagnation, like the Brezhnev era in the USSR.
Anyway, the slightly melancholic tone of this entry might be accounted for in the fact that Kerstin and I were robbed at gunpoint last night. Sounds much more dramatic than it was, but looking down the barrel of a gun - even held by a young kid - is a bit disturbing, though probably to be expected.
..It is funny but my first reaction afterwards was to be grateful for social democracy. What happened seemed to me a kind of informal tax system which we have formalised in northwestern europe in state taxation…and I have to say I prefer a letter from the Dutch taxman to the US method of exacting social welfare…
More later - I fly back today….but we will keep this blog going for the future and invite our new collaborator, Stephanie Smith, to join us soon…
Birmingham to Memphis – the church again
We finally got properly off road on the two-day journey from Alabama to Tennessee. This gave us a chance to test out the church as public space theory and it seems to hold good. Especially in Mississippi, which was in many ways the place that exhibited the most “otherness” of the places we have been. In Memphis, I spoke to the artist Greely Myatt about this. His work can be seen elsewhere here. He is from Mississippi originally and his work has much to do with the place. He agreed, but saw an alternative in the Juke Joint – mostly African American rural bars where at least the men could gather. But still the need for companionship translated into ideological harshness through the fundamental Christian tradition makes more sense, or at least elicits more understanding from me, than I could have suspected. The sadness is the inability of progressives to organise any workable alternatives, even within a religious framework perhaps. It says something about the dangers of writing off parts of a population to backwardness….something that I am beginning to think happened as much in the USA in the early 20th century as in the world in the early 21st.
In the exhibition, the way to reflect this so far seems to be through the work of those religious outsider/self-taught artists. Without resorting the kitsch…a tricky balance in a society like the Dutch that basically rejects the decorative in culture…..(think the general reception of Lily van der Stokker’s work).
A great moment in the Elvis birthplace museum. The guide, sitting on a stool by the reconstructed bed tells how Elvis gifted USD100,000 a year to Tupelo City Council to build a park around his birthplace in 1957. He came back in 1969 and the council had done virtually nothing. The gift stopped, but the park is now there. As she said…in 1957 they probably thought Elvis was just a flash in the pan. Now, the city’s tourist industry is built around him.
On to Memphis, and meeting straight away with a whole group of artists in Marshall Arts. The atmosphere and the welcome was great….Throughout the two days in Memphis it reminded more and more of Glasgow in the mid-1990s. An artist community, energy, things happening in odd corners…..images to follow, thanks so much to everyone there.
Dr Martin Luther King/Civil Rights/Race
For later….have to go to Contemporary Arts Museum, Saint Louis….but the ghost of the King assassination lies heavy on Memphis for sure…