Welcome To Confusion
White flight. Dying industry. Bleak landscapes. Symptoms of Detroit’s blighted past just won’t go away.
“Shrinking Cities,” an international touring exhibition on global urban decay, is out to make you listen, to get you talking.
It’s bewildering to think about what the city has become over the past 50 years. From 1950 to 2003, Detroit’s population has been cut by more than half, while it has more than doubled in the suburbs. The Big Three have been failing in an already one-dimensional economy. The list of demolition permits has been 50 times longer than building permits.
Detroit offers a host of questions that seem to have no sound answers: how can our de-industrialized cityscape cope with the cultural shock of neglect and abandonment? How did we let it get so bad? What in god’s name can we do about it? Welcome to confusion.
The German Federal Cultural Foundation has served up an unexplored avenue. From 2000-2004, they sent over 200 artists of all media, architects, urban planners, and research teams to four international focus cities that (for better or worse) glorify these dilemmas – Leipzig/Halle, Germany; Manchester/Liverpool, England; Ivanovo, Russia; and, of course, Detroit.
The result? The world’s largest and most innovative public-action arts exhibition, addressing the urban by-products of globalization in the 21st century. Can it get us talking about our city in context of a world that ends up being not so different after all?
In the Detroit leg of the tour, the exhibition will run on two main stages in the first ever collaboration between Cranbrook Museum of Art and MOCAD.
Cranbrook Museum of Art will host the first part of the exhibition, “Shrinking Cities: International Research.” This site focuses on the four studied regions, and largely hosts the problem statement for shrinkage. Many of the exhibits you will see there do not push a specific agenda, rather they stand to illustrate the mechanics and effects of grossly underrepresented urban problems.
“Archive of Local Initiatives” is a simple presentation of the scores upon scores of original documents that celebrate the vast diversity of cultural projects and not-for-profits. It is surprising to see such discreet efforts as construction coops and early retirement associations and musical networks. This piece offers sound proof that “Think Global; Act Local” is alive and well. Still, it conveys a chilling sense that civic blight is not from indifference; it suggests some larger forces at play.
Study and analysis of these volumes would surely yield a magnificent absence – a visual one. Safe to say, if you never visited each of the four focus cities, you would never have drawn a connection between them. “Urban Scan,” a video installation by Albrect Schafer (Berlin), presents eight videos filmed from the roof of a slow-moving car through all four sites. Can you tell them apart?
Some pieces are less conversant in intent, but nonetheless deliver a wide array of civic reclamation. Take “Slim’s Bike,” video and C-print by Benjamin Miguel Hernandez and Chris Turner (Detroit). This local favorite portrays staple street celebrity, James Thompson (“Slim”), along Cass Corridor with his mobile bike sculpture of found objects. “The Devil’s Night Poster Series,” by Jeff Karolski (Detroit), presents five fictitious and often humorous ad posters that draw on the wildly overstated arson accounts during Halloween.
Cranbrook Museum of Art’s portion of the exhibition, “Shrinking Cities: International Research,” offers to properly prepare you for intelligent dialogue.
Stop Me, Stop Me, Stop Me Before I Get Creative
MOCAD serves up the second part of the exhibition, “Shrinking Cities: Interventions,” a catalog of works that document or recommend creative projects from around the world. This is the active part of the dialogue; this is where the artists go head to head with the persisting demise of shrinkage on urban areas. It will be divided into five themes: Negotiating Inequality, Self-Governance, Creating Images, Organizing Retreat, and Occupying Space.
“However Unspectacular: The New Suburbanism/Detroit Do Your Thing” delivers a literal plan for redevelopment. The Center for Urban Pedagogy and Interboro, New York compiled this extensive collection of photographs, planning materials, and teaching materials to raise awareness. They propose various and thorough initiatives for suburbanizing the abandoned neighborhoods of downtown Detroit, and other global regions of similar affliction.
A photo series by Ingo Vetter and Annett Weisser (Berlin), “Detroit Industries – Urban Agriculture,” documents the emerging trend of self-organized efforts to use neglected city plots for growing basic crops.
The works, while mostly contemporary, do sometimes reach into the past. Cedric Price’s “Potteries Thinkbelt” from the 1960s, an autonomous educational facility that was to be built on mobile railcars throughout England, will be represented.
These are just a thin slice of the art and projects on display at “Shrinking Cities.” Come out and join the conversation.
David Bartone is a published historian, poet, and short fiction
writer. He lives in Pontiac with his cat, Hey Molly.
Past Shrinking Cities stories from our (old format) archives:
Project Office Philipp Oswalt, Berlin/Researcher Tim Rieniets, Tanja Wesse (graphics), Berlin
Title: "World Map of Shrinking Cities 1950 - 2000"
(c) Project Office Philipp Oswalt
FLAG/Bastien Aubry, Dimitri Broquard, Zurich
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