Shrinking Cities


Detroit 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) gleaned some insight into the project's mission and scope.

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.

The 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 globe.

Should 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 vital.

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.

The 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 in Detroit.

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 communities.

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.

Art 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

(Images and charts courtesy Shrinking Cities.)

© 2002