This is the third installment of an ongoing dialogue wrestling with the questions of why folks make art and its significance to the individual and our culture. Expect to read different views on it from this author and other contributors. That said, this column is open to feedback, input, discussion email comments to me here: firstname.lastname@example.org
For Part One: The Big Yellow Taxi Theory or Mr. Cope Goes to Turkmenistan please click here. For Part Two: New Eyes or How many times must a man look up Before he can see the sky? Please click here.
A while back we ran a manifesto of sorts by a group called the Detroit Demolition Disneyland (DDD) project. The people behind this project have painted the facades of a number of abandoned, decaying houses in Detroit and Highland Park in bright Tiggerific Orange paint available at typical hardware stores. They intentionally chose houses highly visible from the freeways to bring attention to this state of neglect in the city and at the same time add a splash of color to the skyline.
It’s been working, as a number of the buildings they’ve painted have attracted the city’s attention and subsequently have been demolished.
The DDD folks have remained anonymous, in part of course, because of potential legal questions, though they themselves report a police officer approaching them while in the act of painting, and after explaining what they were doing he told them to carry on. But the more significant reason behind their anonymity is to say to anyone who sees their work or reads about it, that they too, have the power to pick up a paintbrush and do this.
At this point, it’s not clear that others have picked up the brush and started a movement, but it has definitely garnered a great deal of interest, and perhaps it’s just a matter of time (and warmer weather) before half the city turns. Since we first posted the manifesto, I’ve gotten numerous requests from all sorts of media outlets in regards to that initial story. For one such example listen to the Michigan Public Radio story here.)
In the previous installment of “Why Art?” the discussion centered on the power of art to build awareness and help people look at their world through new eyes. The DDD project is definitely out to accomplish this, but it also seeks to take a more active role in creating change in the community. This is an obvious divergence from art’s role as decoration and documentation, but even a departure from more socially conscious work – which remained in the gallery and commented on things outside that space. This is taking it to the streets and changing those streets in the process. And in keeping it anonymous, they remove the attention from the artist to the issues of the art itself.
DDD is not alone and certainly not the first. A group out of UD Mercy called “Fire-Break” has been bringing a similar approach to at least eight burned out houses for a number of years. Their stated mission is to act much like a fire-break and redirect the pattern of blight into something more positive for the city’s future. To date, apparently every house the Fire-Break project has worked on, has since been demolished.
And of course, now 20 years ago, Tyree Guyton turned Heidelberg Street into a place of living artwork. He was met with fierce resistance from a city government intent on letting its crumbling structures remain below the radar. But Guyton persevered, the Heidelberg Project continues to thrive, and people around the world flock to what he’s done here just as he is invited all over to share his vision with other communities.
This concept crops up wherever communities are similarly beleaguered. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as the New York Times reported, people are committing similar acts of art in all sorts of places as they try to make sense of the tragedy and build a new future. (Witness this Guyton-esque “trashbot.”)
To some, orange houses and polka dots are all acts of vandalism. But the other perspective is that such acts are a means of empowerment. Not the kind of power that comes from a gun or large amounts of money. But instead this is the kind of power to change our own surroundings: to make things beautiful, safer, and make our community better. As the DDD project stated in their manifesto, “Awareness brings action.”
Maybe real change is in our hands or on the end of a paint brush. – Nick Sousanis
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