is one of four focal points of Shrinking Cities, an international
collaborative art project which promises to be far different from
anything associated with art in the past. Those behind the Shrinking
Cities Project hope it serves to redefine the city of Detroit and
the other cities involved. Along the way it just might help redefine
activism and the role of art in the twenty-first century. In a conversation
with local co-curator and project coordinator Mitch Cope (director
of Detroit's Tangent Gallery)
thedetroiter.com gleaned some insight into the project's mission and
Since humans first began making marks,
exactly what constitutes "Art" has evolved to incorporate
a growing range of expression including documentation, storytelling,
the creation of "art" objects, and social commentary. While
the beginning of the last century saw the rise of Modernism and the
distancing of art from the concerns of society, the start of this
century may see the inception of a form of art that is totally immersed
in the shaping of society. Shrinking Cities is one of the first of
a new kind of art in which artists are activists.
project's origins are much less auspicious. The Cultural Foundation
of the German Government asked architect and writer Philipp Oswalt
to study cities in East Germany that had shrunk greatly in terms of
population and jobs. Rather than limiting the project strictly to
Germany, Oswalt envisioned the benefits of an international collaboration
and thus expanded the project to four cities similar in scale and
experiencing similar shrinking pains. These locations are the twin
cities of Halle/Leipzig in Germany, Manchester/Liverpool in England,
Ivanovo in Russia, and Detroit. With the exception of the writing
on signs and the size of the automobiles, images from any one of these
cities could be mistaken for a picture from one of the others.
The premise of the project is to
study what conditions led to the shrinkage of these cities, to investigate
what is happening to them now, and to offer potential solutions for
their growth. As people and capital abandon a city, they leave behind
an infrastructure that once supported the much larger city. The landscape
of a shrinking city presents a unique set of challenges for the remaining
inhabitants and for the maintenance of the existing infrastructure.
The shrinking phenomenon is not unique to these locations, but is
happening worldwide. By examining these four cities, the project coordinators
hope to have a better model for understanding shrinkage all over the
Detroiters view this accusation of "shrinkage" as an insult?
Will we react to the news with embarrassment and denial? Or will we
listen to the facts, which in this case are incontrovertible? For
instance, Detroit in 1950 had a population of nearly 2 million. Today
it has less than a million residents. Is there another major metropolitan
center where the opening of a new bookstore is front page news? Not
hardly. Each of the four project cities was once home to significant
populations with thriving economies. Now they aren't. Empty storefronts
and abandoned buildings remain as testaments to a lively past. Lacking
population and resources, fresh solutions are needed to keep the community
The gathering of information for
this project is a tremendous undertaking and requires the collaboration
of an interdisciplinary body of artists. At the local level, co-curators
Cope, Kyong Park (architect, artist, and founder of the International
Center for Urban Ecology), and Dan Pitera (architect, head of Detroit
Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit) and their
curator counterparts in the other cities are responsible for coordinating
all the different projects and ensuring their completion. The artists
are busy conducting intensive research to provide a foundation for
their individual art pieces. It's a global mural - each worker contributes
a specific part to the whole while simultaneously creating their own
piece of art. The multitude of artists involved, and the diversity
of experience they bring to the project is such so as to create a
complex and rich picture of the city.
artists record their data in a variety of forms including video, photography,
interviews, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and sound installations.
By conducting the research in an interactive fashion, the project
hopes to create dialogues within the communities it aims to aid. In
Detroit, artists are investigating everything from immobility and
transportation, to slam poetry and urban agriculture. Some projects
deal with the physical infrastructure of the city and its struggle
with the elements. Other projects deal with the people and their unique
methods of survival. Like Detroit artist Scott Hocking, who, for instance,
is interviewing and learning about "scrappers" - the people
who live off of collecting scrap metal. The "Memories Project"
seeks to bring people who moved out of the city back to their former
residences and document the conversation between these two parties.
In each of the other three cities, similar projects are underway.
The Shrinking Cities Project also
takes stock of the means of existing growth already in place. This
would include such things as the arts and grassroots organizations
that persist in a city when so many other economic forces have fled.
Often as a city turns its downward slide around, these small but viable
groups are ignored in favor of cultivating corporate interests. Finding
a balance between multiple means of growth and a model that benefits
a variety of interests is an essential aspect of Shrinking Cities.
All of the investigation and presentation
will be a part of the Shrinking Cities exhibition in Berlin in September
of 2004. This will be an enormous showing intended to raise international
and will include all the data, maps, video, photos, and more from
the artists in each of the four cities. After being on display in
Germany, the show will then travel to England and Russia in 2005 and
perhaps to somewhere in the United States after that. Arrangements
are underway in hopes of finding a suitable venue for the exhibition
The research and exhibition represent
only the first phase of the Shrinking Cities Project. Phase II "Interventions"
seeks to continue the project through proactive means. In February
of 2004 the Shrinking Cities committee will hold an open international
competition for projects intended to "intervene" and benefit
each of the four cities. This juried competition will select fifteen
proposals for inclusion in the exhibition and catalogue. All such
projects that are feasible will receive aid in the form of grant monies
towards the implementation of the projects within their respective
With a project of this scope and
magnitude, where do local governments come into the picture? Will
Shrinking Cities be seen as a threat or a welcome aid in a difficult
battle? That remains to be seen. According to Cope, the project's
mission is to present their findings in such a way as to offer help
to the city. Shrinking Cities seeks to create a dialogue with local
governments and help foster positive growth.
has long had the power to capture our attention, take our breath away,
and leave us in deep contemplation. Shrinking Cities proposes that
art can be all that and maybe achieve something more. Perhaps art
can actively shape the dialogue towards determining what sort of community
we want Detroit to be. - Nick Sousanis
Look to these pages over the coming
months for more details and stories from the Shrinking Cities Project.
Shrinking Cities is headed by Philipp Oswalt and is funded by the
Cultural Foundation of the German Government. For more information
go to www.shrinkingcities.com.
(Images and charts courtesy Shrinking