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…