The new book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit is something unexpected: an architecture book that’s as much about people as it is about buildings. In the case of Lafayette Park, the buildings tend to hog the spotlight, as most of them were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (The neighborhood contains the largest collection of his work in the world.)
Built between 1958 and 1965, Lafayette Park, just east of downtown Detroit, is both a local and national anomaly: an urban renewal project that was actually, by most measures, successful, it has remained racially diverse and economically stable since the beginning. The Mies-designed portion of the development includes 186 cooperatively-owned townhouse and courthouse units made of glass, steel, and brick, as well as three aluminum and glass high-rise apartment buildings: the monolithic Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers. Over the years, as designed, the neighborhood has remained both affordable and economically mixed. The townhouses are largely inhabited by middle-class homeowners, while the glass-walled towers provide an unparalleled urban living experience for working class Detroiters and young professionals.
Thanks for the View, published last month by Metropolis Books, has been a hit in Detroit (and elsewhere). Its humanism is refreshing, as is the unassuming way it approaches its subject — namely, what it’s like to live here, and how people actually inhabit these idealized spaces over time. It contains interviews with and essays by current and former residents, abundant photos (including a series by Corine Vermeulen, previewed in the New York Times in 2010, of residents posing in their distinctly decorated homes), and a host of surprising, digressive features, like several illustrated pages depicting the few dozen bird species that call the park home. It’s at times funny, poignant, obsessive, revelatory, and beautiful. The experience of reading it is a singular pleasure, and, as I enthused last month, I’d recommend it to anybody.
The book’s editors are Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, who call themselves Placement. They are all graphic designers who met in grad school at Yale. Aubert lives in Lafayette Park, originally in Lafayette Towers and now in a townhouse. Cavar is based in Zagreb, Croatia; Chandani’s in Brooklyn. Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies is their first professional collaboration.
When the book came out in Detroit in mid-October, Aubert, Cavar and Chandani were all in town and came up to my place in Lafayette Towers for a conversation about it. Diana Murphy, their publisher from Metropolis, also joined us, and was generous in providing some valuable context for the project.
It was a rainy, cloudy morning, which allowed me to keep all the blinds open and show off the view of the skyline and the wind-whipped Detroit River. (I do, in fact, thank Mr. Mies for the view, daily.) We drank tea, laughed a lot, and chatted about the book and the neighborhood for about an hour. An edited transcript of our conversation follows, divided into three sections: Content, Design and Printing/Publishing.
Danielle Aubert, Natasha Chandani, and LP resident/architect/book contributor Noah Resnick will be giving a talk about Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies at the Graham Foundation in Chicago tomorrow, 11/29, at 6:00 pm.
Matthew Piper: Did you always know this was going to be a book? There’s such a crazy mishmash of content here, including reproduced online exchanges and images that range in size from full-page spreads to thumbnails. It feels like a lot of this could live comfortably in other formats, whether online or off.
Natasha Chandani: No, the original idea wasn’t a book. When we started getting content and doing research, we had no idea what form it would take. We didn’t put a form to it until at least a year into collecting research and contributions. Then, at that point, we couldn’t edit so much of it out that it was a small thing. It started growing and then we realized, OK, this is going to be a book. This was about a year into the project. But we were open to whatever form it might take, especially since we weren’t paying contributors.
Danielle Aubert: Our primary goal was to collaborate on something because Lana’s in Zagreb, Natasha’s in New York, and I’m in Detroit. We’re friends and we like working together. We thought, “Let’s do a magazine, and maybe we’ll make it about places.” We’ve all moved around and we all feel sort of alienated wherever we go, but also at home wherever we go. We’re all interested in how places affect your work, the things you think about, and who you interact with. That was the original idea, and we thought, “Well, we’ll do a magazine, where one issue will be about one place and the next issue will be about another place.” So the folder that we have, the shared folder, still says, “Issue 1: Lafayette Park.” The whole time, we were like, “OK! We’re still working on Issue 1!” But then we also kept thinking, “OK, but what’s Issue 2 going to be?” So it was going to be a magazine, but that just seemed –
Lana Cavar: I don’t think we’re magazine people.
DA: Yeah. Well, we all make books, actually. I mean, Natahsa’s worked on magazines, but-
LC: It’s just the way we approach content — we’re much too thorough for a magazine, you know? I wish we knew how to be more light hearted! Like, two day project, boom, done. But the moment we started, it was like, “Well, there’s this, and this, and also this,” and we just kept going deeper and deeper into the content. We soon became aware that it could not just be a magazine.
DA: There was a moment, I remember it pretty clearly, about a year ago, when I was on sabbatical and I had this big stretch of time, and I was like, “OK, we better finish this book.” But we had all this content in these giant folders, with all subfolders full of all this stuff, and we had all these contributions…. We were really struggling with the content, and having all these doubts, too, because we weren’t sure how the pieces fit together. And we just started making folders, like: Wildlife. Walks. Celebrities. We were thinking in terms of chapters at that point, I think.
NC: I think a big sort of structural thing that we decided halfway through the process was, OK, contributions is one big chunk, but we were doing all these other projects too, like the walks and logging the climate, that we were either authoring or working with people in the community to complete. [The sections Chandani's referring to, "Four One-Mile Walks" and "A Record of Nine Days Spent Keeping the Climate Under Control in a Corner Apartment," are both exactly what they sound like. It's a very straightforward book.] They were all these small things that didn’t require ten pages, and that was a big challenge: to include stuff but not drag it out more than it needed to be. With some of the content, we realized that we really only had a caption for it. There’s no more to tell, really, but we didn’t not want to include it because that’s part of the story. There was a point where we were going back and forth: “Should we kill all this, does it not fit in?” I think once we figured out a system to include everything, that’s when it started taking shape.
MP: It has a nice rhythm as a result, with these brief interludes separating longer sections.
DA: And once we did that, we found even more content. We started calling those pages–
NC: “Bastard pages.”
DA: “Bastard pages!” That was Lana’s term.
Diana Murphy: Gee, I never would have guessed that.
DA: But then really, as soon as you had that category, you could fill in all theses things, like the Easter egg hunt and the bench and all that. ["The bench" refers to a brief interlude about a bench, below, at which several townhouse residents gather regularly to "talk about all the problems of the world and never solve any of them," according to resident Barbara Matesa.]
DA: Then we had longer pieces that we sort of shrunk down into bastard pages. And then, also, working with Corine’s photos: We had all these sort of spectacular photos [of townhouse and high rise residents in their homes], which were actually kind of a challenge because they were all so seductive and so interesting. We wanted to showcase the photos, but at the same time we didn’t want the book to just be about photographically representing people. We wanted people to be speaking. We had a lot of conversations about this, about representing people through photography exclusively, and wanting to keep the voice of the people involved. That was also a challenge: how to give the photos the space, but at the same time not make a glossy coffee table book full of photos.
MP: Lafayette Park includes several buildings designed by other architects, local architects, that are quite distinctive, modern, and interesting in their own right, and that are a big part of life here. [These include the 1300 Lafayette high rise by Gunnar Birkerts and the one-story Chateaufort Place Townhouses by Lorenz & Paski.] Were you ever tempted — and I understand this would have been an entirely other project — to take a closer look at life in some of these other developments, too, or did you always know it was just going to be Mies?
NC: Well, for us — what we focused on was just so much. We could have even gone on in more detail with just the things that we picked, with only Mies’s buildings.
MP: Right. Well, it feels, as a reader, like the content that you did include could easily just grow exponentially, forever.
NC: We did, actually, talk a lot initially about covering stuff on the periphery. Like: what happens outside this little area?
LC: Well, we did think quite seriously about it, and that’s what we ended up kicking out: content about the [nearby] shopping plaza and school, for example [both of which are Miesian in style but not actually designed by Mies]. For a long time, we wanted to include, and we even went to make some project about, the food store there. Also, at some point in our research, the school was supposed to close, so we definitely wanted to do something about that: interview people at the school, have a photo shoot with kids in the park, and so on. But then we decided that we had to — well, fortunately, the school didn’t close, otherwise we probably would have gone for it. But even for the plaza, we just decided we had to stop at Mies and not go any further, because like you said, it could just go on forever. Plus, logistically, it’s very difficult to approach communities completely from the outside.
DA: I do sometimes feel apologetic when I talk to people from the 1300 or Chateaufort about the book. In terms of integrating the whole community together, it would have been nice to bring in some of those people. There are a lot of interesting thinkers and artists living in those places. But the thing we kept pushing was to bring in the Mies high rises, because people in the townhouses tend to talk about “the neighborhood” when they’re just referring to the townhouses.
DA: We had a lot more close access with the townhouses because I was living there, but we would have liked more of the towers. We also felt, though, when we were organizing the content, that the towers section kind of makes sense for the way the towers exist as a community. We have more of these short interviews and short quotes because, we thought, in a way, that’s how you know people in the towers.
MP: Oh, that’s great. Elevator conversations!
MP: Let’s talk about the design of the book. Could you discuss some of your decision-making in terms of typeface, layout, how you decided to put everything together?
NC: The typeface on the cover, Stymie, is from the Lafayette Towers sign. The sign is all caps, and the cover text is all lowercase, but it’s the same typeface.
LC: Also, when we started thinking about design for the first time, here in Detroit, we made a little research on some Detroit publications from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. We were also looking at books that were published around the same time as when the buildings were built, just to analyze some of the modernist concepts going on during that time. We were thinking a lot about the way Mies structured the buildings, with a very simple grid, very simple gestures. I mean, it’s a modernist principle that was very much applied in graphic design at the time, as well. So we were looking at these things, and trying to keep that modernist concept, but sort of re… –I hate this word “reinvent,” I don’t think we reinvented anything– but maybe making some small moves to play around with it.
DA: Well, I feel like it was to make the grid feel lived in, not so stiff — the way it feels to live here.
LC: Yes, so we didn’t really stick to the grid, we tried to move things around to try to break the grid. But also, some typographical decisions were really kind of taken from old Detroit ‘zines.
DA: Yeah, we found all these art publications from the ’60s and ’70s. There was that one that also used Stymie. What were they called?
LC: Detroit Arts, or something.
DA: Detroit Arts? The issue we were looking at had a picture of Warhol on the cover.
LC: Well, it was a great process. We were photocopying a ton of the material in Wayne State [the Detroit university where Aubert teaches] for a few days, maybe even a week, and then cutting it out and working in a way that you don’t normally work these days, since the computer. We were looking at the grid, scaling things up, scaling them down, looking at the mess, and trying to figure out how to translate it into something organized. And then, of course, many things that we liked, we had to abandon, just to simplify it.
NC: What remained is more a testament to the content. The content was so varied. The systems had to be so simple to accommodate the different categories of content that we were creating. So I think a lot of stuff got stripped down in order to strike a balance.
DA: Originally we were designing it with a motley assortment of type to correspond to the motley assortment of content. And then we actually showed a preview copy to one of our best critics from grad school, this graphic designer Armand Mevis in the Netherlands, and he saw it and at first, said, “Oh, this is great, I love it.”
LC: But then he said, “I have a few comments about the design,” and we were like, “What? What are the comments?”
DA: He said, “You guys, really, it’s kind of a mess. I don’t understand what you’re doing.”
NC: And I think really that was a function of us all working on the same file, and working so quickly, to finish the preview copy for the deadline, but then also there was the underlying fact that the project was quite complex, having all these different pieces of content fitting into this thing. We took his comments pretty seriously.
DA: Yeah, that was good. But I remember, there was a moment when Lana and Natasha were working on the book during these two weeks when I wasn’t really active, and they eliminated this typeface, I think it was Century Schoolbook, and when I came back to it, I was like, “Hey! Bring that back!”
LC: I remember that. She came in and said, “What happened to our file?! You guys! Did you guys remove the font?”
DA: All the sudden it was all Helvetica!
LC: Well, there was a big discussion about Helvetica. Actually in the ’50s, Helvetica was not so much in use, it only came after. It actually bloomed in late ’60s and early ’70s. From the ’70s on, it kind of became corporate America. We actually started with serifs, and had a very serif-heavy book because we were kind of replicating that model from the ’50s and early ’60s. But it just felt so retro in a way we didn’t want it to feel. I was actually watching the movie Helvetica, here in Detroit, and I just told them, “We’ve got to do the whole thing in Helvetica.” Even if everybody’s doing everything in Helvetica now.
NC: But when you look at the book, I don’t think it feels very Helvetica-heavy.
LC: Well, we used a lot of Helvetica italics.
NC: That changes it, yeah, but there’s also the texture and the imagery, not just photographic, adding to the texture of the type and changing the tone of the book, making it less cold.
MP: On that note, one of my favorite things is the first eight pages of the book, this kind of crazy, careening collection of images. It’s kind of an exhilarating mess, and so not Miesian. I love it. The images are just flying off the page, and it made me immediately so happy when I opened the book.
DM: That was the very last thing they did.
LC: That was the hardest thing in the book.
MP: Really? Why?
NC: We had most of the rest of the book figured out, and at that point we were like, OK, what do we want to do with the intro? How do we want to introduce this place, its exteriors? Do we want these hero shots that we don’t really have anywhere else? Do we want exteriors with people? Who’s going to take those photographs? An architectural photographer? An amateur? Corine? We went back and forth, and then finally we realized: our book is not about these glorified images. It’s about people. So we basically asked people in Lafayette Park to contribute images, and we got thousands.
DA: We got about 4,000 images. People don’t edit! Friends dropped off discs with 200, 300 images, 100 of which were all taken out the same second-floor window. It was incredible.
LC: But we really wanted to have a collection of photos that would have a different focus than what a professional photographer would take. You know, the pink sky, kids, weird angles, snow. If an architect would ask for photos of his work, that’s not what he would want. We wanted photos that showed how people actually take pictures of this place.
DA: We also had to cut back a little bit. There was a point where we were like, “Do we need the pink sky and the flowers and the rainbows and the flowering crab apple trees?”
DM: Not to mention the kids.
DA: I know, the kids. I kept trying to put my nephew [who also lives in Lafayette Park] in. “Are you sure you don’t think that’s a cute picture?”
LC: No kids and no cats, please.
MP: There have to be so many photos of Lafayette Park cats around. I know I have like twenty-five.
NC: We had to fight Danielle not to put in a picture of a cat.
DA: It was my neighbor Andy’s cat looking out the window! I thought, “This is perfect for Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies!”
DM: You know, the book was printed in Zagreb, and Lana went on press. This was [Danielle, Lana and Natasha's] only requirement of us, that we not print the book in China. That’s where all illustrated books are printed these days because it’s just so much cheaper, and they said, “Please, can we not do it?” Lana had printed in Zagreb before and we said, “OK, we’ll check it out.” And it worked out, financially. It was more expensive than China but cheaper than the US or western Europe, so we did it, and Lana really carried the weight on that part of the process. But it was worth it.
MP: How many copies did you print?
DM: 3,000 copies. When we started out we thought we were going to do 1,500.
DA: No, you said 200 the first time!
NC: I thought you said 500.
DM: OK, yeah, I forgot about that. Well, I just totally loved this thing from the moment I saw it. I thought it might be a tough sell to my colleagues, especially the salespeople, but everybody got it immediately. I didn’t have to sell it all.
MP: Well, it feels so new. I think the fact that you aren’t architects, that you’re graphic designers — when I was reading, I kept thinking, “More people who don’t specialize in something should write books about it.” It’s so fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an architecture book like this.
DM: There isn’t one. I can tell you, I’ve been publishing architecture books for 30 years. There is no other book like this.
DA: I’ve known Diana for a few years and I thought we should ask her for advice, but I never really thought our book was right for Metropolis because it’s so fringe. I didn’t think it would fit. It doesn’t look like what we could see coming out of a publisher.
DM: It totally fits!
NC: But you took that leap. We talked to other publishers and the constant comment we kept getting was: “It’s not really an architecture book, it’s not really an art book. We have to fit in on some shelf and it just doesn’t fit.” Friends tried to connect us with publishers and they all said, “Its interesting but — how do we market it?”
DA: At one point, we were thinking about inviting scholars to contribute essays. I thought, “If we have an authoritative essay in there, then people would have to get it, because there’s such-and-such an essay, which becomes authoritative information that people can then cite.” But I’m glad we didn’t do that. With the way it came together, we were able, instead, to turn people into authorities of their own lived experience.
DM: I liked the hybridity of it. We did have discussions at DAP [Distributed Art Publishers]: Is this an architecture book? A graphic design book? Even a kind of sociology book? In the end, you have to pick a shelf. You have to pick a category. We went with architecture, but it’s also really a graphic design story, with graphic designers taking the role of the author. It’s also an artist’s book, so carefully crafted. That’s what I loved about it, that it’s so rich in dimensions.
DA: Our response among architects, even in the neighborhood, has been really positive. I think architects like to feel like that their profession is understood by other people.
LC: It’s interesting, because it’s hard to imagine an architect hiring somebody else to do a book like this about their project. But then once it’s out there, they actually appreciate it. I think they really appreciate seeing how interested people are in it. You can tell they’re really excited to see such a book about architecture. But somehow they can’t let go of the glossy, sleek images they like of their buildings.
NC: I think this also came from the fact that we’ve all worked on books or magazines about architecture. At some level, we’re all interested in this content, but the way it’s delivered, it just seems so inaccessible. It’s to another architect. As a graphic designer, yes, I’m interested in it, but I don’t like the delivery or tone in which the story is told. And what you said, that we’re not specialists, that’s the bottom line. If we were specialists, we’d have had preconceptions. You’d think, “No, don’t talk to that person. He’s not the expert, this other person is.” But we just went to anyone who would talk to us!
DM: That’s the beauty of this. That’s why this book is so brilliant. The usual process of writing a book is, you do a lot of interviews, then you filter it, take what people said, and turn it into your own words. But this is giving a voice to people who actually live here. It’s a democratic approach to making a book. And when you think about what the intent of Lafayette Park was, it was meant to improve the quality of life for people in a city, and so the book just represents all these aspects of what daily life here is. It completely carries through with the intent of the place from the beginning.
For decades, Detroit has performed a facile and impoverished symbolic role in our regional and national consciousness. You know what the city represents almost by instinct: abandonment, danger, the slow yet violent death of once-mighty American industry — the death, even, of the American city.
The proliferation of this looming, limiting symbolism has been accelerated, in the last decade, by advances in digital photography technology and online connectedness, which have made exhibiting photographers of us all. Amateurs and professionals alike come from all over to photograph Detroit’s ruins (and then share them with their social networks). These crumbling structures are astonishing, when you’re not used to them (and even, sometimes, when you are). They’re hulking, haunting, impossible, darkly transcendent. Photographed, they have real power as memento mori. A “unique glimpse into the sublime, where time seems suspended and the glory of a civilization now past has taken hold of the onlooker” motivates the taking of such pictures, according to Detroit Institute of Arts photography curator Nancy Barr.
But, of course, these photos are contentious. They typify the “predatory side of photography” that Susan Sontag wrote about in 1977 in On Photography. (“The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.”) They’re touristy, superficial, embarrassing; more to the point, they nakedly dramatize the power dynamics that sustain a society in which some people are born and live among ruins and others can swoop in, photograph them, and return to their lives of material comfort.
And they keep us cornered, these photos. “This is what you are,” they say blandly to a city that is tired of getting shit on by hostile outsiders. They come to define us, to those who don’t know our warmth and industriousness.
But things are changing. Thanks in part to the same connecting technologies and tendencies that encourage the proliferation of ruin porn, new and expanding narratives about Detroit are being successfully disseminated alongside the old ones. Yes, we’re post-industrial; yes, we’re poverty-stricken; yes, we’ve got all these decrepit buildings to deal with; yes, yes, yes.
But! There are people here. All kinds of people, in fact. People who are struggling, yes, but also people who are choosing to live differently. People who come from far away. People who are finding new ways to support one another. They’re designing and creating viable public spaces, they’re farming the land, they’re learning to live in ways that are not inherently hierarchical, they’re making art out of the rubble. Is all this new? No. But for the first time in a long time, it’s news. In a surprising turn, the people in this city are starting to compete with violent death and empty buildings as objects of outsider interest.
Detroit Revealed, the new exhibition at the DIA that showcases ten years of Detroit photography by eight different photographers (four local, four not), reflects Detroit-as-symbol in the expected ways (“predictable,” the exhibition text readily admits), but also in some of these newly-understood ways. It’s notable because it reflects a tentative understanding of Detroit’s real urban complexity, a complexity that has lately eluded it in the popular consciousness.
Included in the exhibition are a few spectacular works by New Yorker Andrew Moore, recently famous (or locally infamous) for Detroit Disassembled, one of a current crop of Detroit urban ruin books (with accompanying shows in Akron and Queens). His masterful photos (surely among the best in the genre) are some of those that get reproduced ad nauseum online. They’re given new power in the museum setting by their scale (the one below is 5′ x 6′, and feels like you could walk right into it), but they are, ultimately, among the least interesting works on view because they’re already so familiar. They trade in that old symbology, those well-worn truths, and feel dated next to the vibrant portraiture of Corine Vermeulen, Carlos Diaz, and Dawoud Bey.
Detroiter Scott Hocking’s work is some kind of cousin to Moore’s, but it’s the cousin you’d rather sit next to at the family Christmas party. Hocking is interested in ruin and abandonment, but as a starting point, not a conclusion. His photos include work that is about photographing the city’s ruins. It also includes urban landscapes taken in parts of Detroit that are being re-claimed by nature, and photographic records of his installation work, like Ziggurat, erected in the Fisher Body Plant 21.
Michelle Andonian, another Detroiter, is concerned with documenting the city’s changing auto industry. Her beautiful shots of Detroit’s modernized Rouge Factory participate in an old photographic conversation about Detroit industry. Her work is worlds away from Andrew Moore’s in spirit, but shares with it a technical fluency, a sense of elegant spectacle, and a concurrent sense of, well, predictability. (Though it’s a valuable reminder that while we always talk about Detroit as a post-industrial place, industry does still live here, in however diminished a role.)
So that’s the familiar story, told in accomplished new images. True? Sure, as long as no one confuses individual photos or sets with the whole truth. Insightful? I guess that would depend on the viewer — and how much time she spends reading the captions. (Sontag also reminds us in that still-incandescent book that, “Strictly speaking, one never knows anything from a photograph….Only that which narrates can make us understand.”) But in this exhibition, it’s the faces, ultimately, that really count; the arresting portraiture tears you away from the machines and the ruin.
Local artist Carlos Diaz has photographed Latino immigrants living in Southwest Detroit. The six direct, beautiful, black-and-white portraits are all enclosed in round frames, hearkening, as Nancy Barr notes in her exhibition catalog essay, to the Renaissance and tondi (but also to family portraits). Diaz thinks of them as “road maps,” each evoking its subject’s individual journey to the US. Because of the compositional similarity of the six portraits, the distinctiveness of each subject is striking. And that, according to Diaz, is part of his point — to break apart the monolithic “Latino population of Detroit,” so often discussed in terms of “illegals” and “aliens,” into individuals.
Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch transplant to Detroit, finds seemingly countless fascinating subjects in her travels around the city, paying special attention to members of communities that live in some kind of opposition to normative American values: urban farmers, social justice activists, exhibitionistic electronic music freaks. Like Diaz’s subjects, Vermeulen’s look directly into the camera, but she usually shoots them from a wider angle, allowing their surroundings to enrich her characterizations. Her work is perhaps the most legitimately revelatory of the included photographers’, reflecting an enthusiastic awareness of the variety and character of people who are drawn to and inhabit this curious, and frequently wondrous, city.
The work of the final two photographers, Dawoud Bey (from Chicago) and Ari Marcopoulos (based in NY, originally from the Netherlands) includes photographs and video pieces (much to the chagrin of a bloviating crab-ass who saw the exhibition when I did and couldn’t believe there were video pieces in a photography show). Marcopoulos contributes what was, to me, easily the most thrilling piece on view, a short video of Hunter and Shane Muldoon, two kids who are in a rock band with their dad, making screeching, blissed-out electronic sound art in their amazingly colorful Southwest Detroit bedroom. (You can see some of their equipment in the shot below.) When they finish their pulsing sonic assault and look up, they smile sheepishly and you remember that they’re 10 and 13. “There you go,” says one. “All right,” says the other. Fin.
Bey, who was an artist-in-residence at the DIA for a year in 2003, spent much of that time talking to teenagers at (the now closed) Chadsey High School. He also photographed them sumptuously and sensitively, and recorded interviews with them that become incredibly intimate video portraits. In the videos, the kids’ faces are shot in extreme close-up, and the camera roams restlessly, stopping for a moment on their eyes, their mouths, their noses, rarely able to fit more than one feature in the frame. Excerpts from four of these poignant, self-searching interviews play on a loop. They include a Latina immigrant discussing the experience of leaving much of her family behind in her home country, a Romanian who misses the quiet country nights of his, a Detroiter talking about life without a father and learning to avoid trouble and build his character, and an Arab-American Muslim who upsets her parents by refusing to wear a headscarf, because she’s “proud to be beautiful.” (Still portraits of Yahmáney and Gheorghina, those last two, are included in the show.)
I tell people sometimes that you go to Detroit to learn what “community” means. They look at me funny, since the news has told them that Detroit is where you go to get shot. But this has really been my experience, and the experience of many others. Whether because of the adversity or in spite of it, Detroiters come together in inspired and inspiring ways all the time. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to the portraits in this show, and felt like some of the other work was well-executed old hat. There are plenty of things (monumental things, moving things, broken things) that people have devoted plenty of time to staring at in Detroit over the last ten years. But our faces? Those are worth a closer look.
So will people have a better understanding of contemporary Detroit after visiting Detroit Revealed? Well, you know: “The knowledge gained through still photographs,” the great lady wrote, “will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices — a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom….” But they might leave with an ever-so-slightly more nuanced vision of Detroit, some version of the expanded sense of possibility that they afford other big cities in this crazy country all the time. And hey — that’s a start.
Detroit Revealed is on view until April 8, 2012 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
For three successive nights starting Friday, September 30, the experimental architecture and design studio Minimaforms will install Memory Cloud: Detroit in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The interactive piece (a “transient light environment,” in the words of its creators) will consist simply of manufactured fog and words written with light. Those words, which will be projected onto the rolling fog as it fills the nighttime sky, will be yours, if there’s anything in particular you’ve been meaning to say to Detroit.
This isn’t the first Memory Cloud. Minimaforms (which consists of brothers Theodore and Stephen Spyropoulos) originally installed the piece in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2008. Participants contributed text messages about whatever they liked, then watched as those messages were projected onto the fog, growing, shimmering, multiplying, and passing over their heads before finally disappearing. There were more than 1,500 messages submitted over three nights. Together, they formed a dreamy, evanescent pastiche of loves notes, cultural references, confessions, inside jokes, questions, pick-up lines, philosophical musings, calls to political action, reactions to participating in the piece, and much else. All of the messages from the three nights are archived here. They make for fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) reading. Some of my favorites include:
this makes me feel sexy
the future is here
Please will someone give me a job?!
do I dare disturb the universe?
I lost my knickers
Wigs are fun! you should try one
I iz in ur smoke makin ur arts
The Detroit version of Memory Cloud, while formally similar to the London performance, will have a tighter focus. In the weeks leading up to it, Detroiters were invited to submit “memories, stories, and personal aspirations for the city of Detroit” in 150 characters or less via the website Voice of Detroit. You’ll still be able to submit text messages at the event, but the content is likewise intended to be Detroit-centric, forming an “evolving diary,” a multifaceted exploration of a city created out of hundreds of subjective impressions.
Minimaforms creates temporary environments that are rooted in participation, communication, urbanism, and contemporary technology. With Memory Cloud, they give elegant, transient physical form to the digital spaces we’ve already become so used to inhabiting this century, spaces made from endless streams of others’ thoughts. But by giving us an event, an opportunity to physically exist in such a space together, they simultaneously reaffirm our ancient connections to place, and to one another.
The brothers were kind enough to answer a few questions over email about their work and Memory Cloud: Detroit. Because their practice tests the limits of what architecture and design can be, I thought I’d start with the basics:
Matthew Piper: What is architecture? What is design?
Minimaforms: We do not separate or find productive definitions that privilege the differences or limits of what art, architecture, or design is. Our approach is very much based on creative forms of enquiry that engage the problem or brief at hand. Our pursuits are not driven from a stylistic or technique based approach but on a sensibility and a desire to explore communication through enabling participatory and collective means.
MP: What draws you to the concept of the “minimal?” How does your work embody it?
M: “Minima” came from a conception of space and time that was being discussed in the sciences of complexity. It takes the position that all matter is in a constant state of change and that form appears as a moment of stability. This moment of perceived stability is our constructed relationship with the world that engages us as observers and participants. Our name Minimaforms came from this thinking.
MP: I’m curious to know if you created together as kids. If you did, what did you make?
M: We have since our early childhood been curious in exploring our surroundings. It was not until we moved together to London in 2002 that same early curiosity could be channeled in a form of serious play. Steve went to study at Central St. Martins and I took a teaching position at the AA School of Architecture while working for design offices like Zaha Hadid Architects. During this period we began to explore and experiment with new processes and forms of interaction that challenged the fixed and finite. We were both searching for opportunities to explore work that went beyond conventions of traditional architecture and design. Stephen, training as an artist and interaction designer, and myself as an architect, found this through a conception of space as an environment. Minimaforms was formed in this period and has continued to be our experiment.
MP: In “Twenty-Five Sentences on Minimaforms,” David Greene writes that the most important desire of Minimaforms is “the desire to re-inhabit the city.” [Note to readers: that document is really worth a look.] Do you agree? Can you address that aspect of your work in more detail? It struck me because it’s also such an important desire for so many Detroiters right now. While, of course, our city has never been uninhabited, it has in recent decades been famously less inhabited, and (less famously) inhabited in ways that reinforce social divisions and inequality. We’re currently seeking new ways to inhabit it together. Did this feature of life in contemporary Detroit influence your decision to install Memory Cloud here?
M: It is an important feature of our work and the interest arises through the desire to explore new forms of communication and interaction. The urban environment of a city plays host and witness to this evolving human engagement. We see design as assisting and challenging the inert built environment, enabling new relationships that give over the city to the people. It seems in contemporary times people’s engagement with the city has become pre-conditioned or limited; it is important for us to find means in which we can explore space as public and shared.
The city is very much a creative and life-like partner in our everyday, and we explore ways to intervene and make this evident through our work. Memory Cloud is a direct form of this inquiry through the expressed thoughts and emotions of people. Cities are environments and they are shaped and evolve through their inhabitants. Detroit, like many cities, is in a process of reinventing itself and through this engaged moment of transformation, allowing itself to creatively come to terms with its immediate present and potential future.
With respect to our involvement with Detroit, we felt that we could offer a framework or platform through Memory Cloud for the voice of the people to hold a conversation with the city itself. We have had many offers to perform Memory Cloud since we performed it in Trafalgar Square in 2008; we had resisted until now. We believe that Memory Cloud: Detroit can make a difference, giving people in the city an instrument to communicate with the city itself.
MP: You’ve mentioned that Trafalgar Square was an ideal space for the first incarnation of Memory Cloud because it’s so public, used so often for collective action and expression. Since it’ll be presented here in a somewhat more traditional art context, Memory Cloud: Detroit will have something of a different aura (though it’ll still be visible to unsuspecting passersby). Can you talk about that difference? How has the project evolved since 2008?
M: Within the context of London, Trafalgar Square offered an interesting opportunity for us as its history has been of one of public expression through either protest or celebration, as you mention. Memory Cloud directly sets out to challenge what a context could mean, which in many ways brings up issues of permanence and, we would say, experience. The work we develop is constructed as an instrument. Context and content are elements that are formed through the intervention: the act is a product of
interaction and participation. In themselves, the Memory Cloud works could be understood as context-less, but they are conceived as prototypes that are open systems with the capacity to become context-specific.
In our Detroit version, the project will share the medium of smoke signals and light projection, as in the Trafalgar Square performance, though the emphasis will be on giving the people of Detroit an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the city as part of a collective act. We will animate DIA’s Woodward Entrance with stories collected from the public. Each individual expression will be part of a continuous story about the city, a narrative written by participants over the duration of the project, transforming the steps of the DIA into a dynamic space for communication. Audience members will also be able to contribute messages via text-message during the performance each night. These collected text messages will be added to the Voice of Detroit archive, becoming part of an evolving diary and a voice that will speak of Detroit’s past, Detroit’s present and Detroit’s future.
MP: When I first started researching Memory Cloud, I was tantalized by the Telegraph‘s description of it as “potentially the most dramatic — and also most obscene — art events ever to be held in London.” I then read that text messages were, in fact, screened for content before they were displayed. I admit to being a little disappointed; there’s something dangerous and exciting about the idea of unfiltered, anonymous, real-time expression. I assume you’ll also screen messages in Detroit. Was this a difficult decision to make? What concerns guided it?
M: Every context or institution has its own rules and regulations. In London, as you mentioned, we were asked to develop a tool that would allow the city to screen the messages, as the city had concerns that ranged from inciting riots to religious intolerance. From an artistic perspective we made this affordance as a precautionary measure that allowed for the project to be performed.
The project itself brought to the forefront the complexities of this kind of event. The installation itself was only the third public art project to use the space of the Square, the first a piece by Krzysztof Wodiczko’s, which was a projection performed in 1985. It was critical for us to find a way to work with the city and realize a project that reinstated a public forum in the heart of the city through an artistic framework without compromising its integrity. Though we developed this tool, few messages were deemed unacceptable by the City of London for their content. Most of the messages that were removed were attempts from brands to use the piece to promote their commercial interests. It surprised the city officials that most of the sentiment was novel and respectful. In Detroit, the piece will be governed by the rules of the context we are operating in. As artists we are constructing a platform and we do not edit or create the content. This is very much a context specific intervention in all aspects.
MP: If the text messages sent and displayed comprise a conversation, it’ll be a sort of one-sided conversation (or rather, many one-sided conversations). This reminds me of World Question Center, a 1968 James Lee Byars TV piece that was recently on view at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In it, Byars places phone calls to dozens of thinkers and invites each to ask a single question that has special significance for his or her particular field of inquiry. There are never answers, only questions.
David Greene writes that Minimaforms has a “desire to be useful in the world” — what, to you, is the utility of facilitating a public conversation that is, on its face, incomplete?
M: The James Lee Byars project you mention is a very interesting example, and we would say that we share a strong interest in the conceptual and cybernetic works of that period. Byars’s telephone call is similar to our online site that collects the stories as part of the one sided conversation that you mention. Though the conversational aspects of the project are not formed from this collection. The project has as much to do with the content of the messages as it has to do with the environmental aspects that operate
within the structuring of the piece. In 1946, Lucio Fontana famously declared in The White Manifesto that “we need a change in essence and in form. We need to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry and music. We need a greater art in harmony with the requirements of the new spirit.” He offered his vision of this new spirit through what he saw as “the construction of voluminous forms changing through a plastic, mobile substance. Arranged in space they act in synchronic form, they complete dynamic
images.” Messages communicated through Memory Cloud are continually reformed as the space of projection is grafted onto atmospheres of shape-shifting volumes of fog. The environmental variables continually reshape the projected messages through the dynamic writing and erasing of messages. This constructed atmosphere allows the text to transform in scales and incarnations along the driftscape of projected light. Accelerating air flow increases rates of dissipation further by transforming the volume
and density of the space of projection. The observers’ spatial perception continually pursues dynamic stability through forms of legibility in motion perception.
One of the important things for us is to find ways to enable people to participate. The move towards making things more shared and collective also encourages people to really engage with things. That level of engagement is very important to us. One of the key features of this kind of work is that people who are participating see their contribution to the project. The project takes on the identity of the viewer, it becomes an extension and instrument.
Participants become performers.
Minimaforms is based in New York and London. Their work can currently be seen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects.” Memory Cloud: Detroit will take place at 8:00 pm at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Friday, 9/30, Saturday, 10/1, and Sunday, 10/2.
August 19, 2011 · Print This Article
Cedric Tai really came to Detroit’s attention with his Brixel murals, dazzling and colorful pieces of public art funded by a Kresge Arts Fellowship and created, with active community participation, around Midtown Detroit. The murals are meant (in part) to draw attention to the beautiful brickwork that’s all over the city. (Brixel = brick + pixel, and the pieces definitely have a distinctly pixelated look; when I see them, I can’t help but think, delightedly, of late ’80s Nintendo game landscapes.) Creating each mural involves generating a pattern with a specialized computer program, then organizing a team of volunteers to execute it by painting individual bricks according to the pattern. They’re sort of like large-scale paint-by-numbers projects, offering participants who aren’t visual artists the valuable sense of what it feels like to produce public art. (Just don’t call it street art. Click here for an earlier interview I did with Cedric where he explains why he’s uncomfortable using that term to describe his Brixel work.)
But there’s much more to Cedric’s art than Brixels. He concentrated in painting (and art education) at Michigan State University, where he earned his BFA in 2007. His paintings, mostly executed on acrylic plastic, allow for considerably more fluidity than his Brixel work. Some of them evoke landscapes, others aerial perspectives of natural and man-made systems, and others little more than the materials and gestures used to create them. What unites them, to my eye, is a sense of transformation (nearly each piece seems to represent a moment of transition, arrested) and collision (there are usually several distinct visual languages competing for space on the canvas at once).
Cedric’s about to leave Detroit for Glasgow, where he’ll be pursuing an MFA at the Glasgow School of Art (and most likely branching out into different media). We talked over email about his work, bartering in Detroit, art infrastructure and community, toxic materials, happiness, and his impending move.
Matthew Piper: I recently heard you describe yourself primarily as a painter, with nascent interests in sculpture and installation. Looking at your paintings, though, I can’t help but notice the host of un-painterly materials involved in their creation: silkscreen, marker, iron filings, ink, charcoal powder, etc. You strike me (in that work, anyway) as a multimedia artist working primarily in two dimensions; why do you identify so strongly with the painting tradition?
Cedric Tai: When I refer to myself as a painter, I’m keeping in mind what other people think of what a painting is. To me it gets that ‘what kind of art do you make?’ question out of the way, since I’m actually more interested in using paintings to barter with, which is far more interesting an activity that I engage in as an artist. Painting is also an open term that resonates with people: how you can visually connect with the way materials are applied, combined and represented. When I make a painting, I want to make each material stand on its own, and whether it’s a scrap of fabric or a routed out channel, it can be done in a gesture, a painterly way.
MP: When you say “barter,” you literally mean trading, right? This is such a fascinating aspect of economic life of Detroit. (Well, I think of it as part of life in Detroit, but it sounds like you might think of it more as a tendency among artists.) Do you mostly trade art for art?
CT: I’ve bartered more than once for free stays in hotels, I’ve bartered for a trip for me and [my partner] Rachel to go to Hawaii for two weeks, and I’ve also bartered for getting things constructed for me! It’s really interesting to see how the idea of ‘value’ becomes a negotiable realm where you trade apples for oranges rather than compare apples to oranges.
MP: When did your romance with painting on acrylic plastic begin? Obviously it gives your work a very distinct (and very beautiful) look, but what else draws you to it?
CT: Acrylic plastic is interesting in that all of the first paintings started with scratched found pieces. I like the idea that perhaps I’m selling people’s recyclables back to them as artwork, and if plastic is going to last forever, it might as well also be artwork then. But in terms of how I paint on the back for it to be seen from the front, it’s quite slick and messier than one would think, I actually have to think in terms of objects turning from liquid to solid and then think about how to protect the finished outcome.
MP: Can you describe your process in a bit more detail? Do you feel any obligation as a contemporary artist to think about the re-use of materials from a sustainability standpoint? I remember when I first helped paint a Brixel mural, I suddenly found myself confronting the environmental (and respiratory!) toll of using so much spray paint. Not having any experience as a painter, it was an unusual position to find myself in, and it made me wonder how you navigate the ethical dimensions of using toxic materials to make (sometimes large-scale) art.
CT: My process can vary greatly depending on the material, although I think my best work shares certain qualities: its relationship to intuition, creating and disrupting a system/pattern, and the feeling that something much bigger than the piece itself is being referenced. The only ethical dilemma I thought of was when I was trying to decide whether or not I should buy any more acrylic plastic after the BP oil spill, since its chemical makeup is based on petroleum. At that point I made it my goal to never buy any, but use up whatever I had left or get it used from other people. Surprisingly I have more acrylic plastic than I’ve ever had just because I put it out there that I was only using what was already out there and useless to someone else.
MP: Can you talk a bit about your interest in sculpture and installation? Have you had the chance to work much in these media yet or is that what grad school’s going to be for? What’s a Cedric Tai installation like?
CT: I’m definitely interested in figuring out what exactly is the medium I should be working in while I’m in Glasgow. I feel like I couldn’t just make anything since I like materials to refer to themselves and it’s important to me that the audience can see obvious choices that I’ve made. You can see one of my newest installations below.
The last two years have been very much about exploring as many different tools and materials as I could get access to, and now I’m more interested in letting the material find me. For example, I’m really interested in exploring the different definitions of happiness, such as the difference between working towards an optimal experience, ‘flow,’ and how that’s different from ‘zen’, which is something I feel like is about not trying. I’m also really nerdy about art education and I feel like my best work is about facilitation, so who knows? After grad school I might stop making tangible objects.
MP: That installation looks so fun and wondrous. Did anybody sit or stand in the middle of it? (That’s what I want to do, watching the video.) It’s a little darker than that, though, too, isn’t it? There’s something Sisyphean about the task of gathering and releasing all the foam. Would you say you’re working out ideas of happiness in this piece? Ben Gaydos’s video element seems to achieve a certain contentedness amid the whirlwind.
CT: I didn’t get to stay when more people came in to interact with the work. I’ve heard that some people absolutely loved it and started to dive into the foam while other people stood and gazed for long periods of time while their friends played inside of it. I feel like I somehow captured people’s attention span with a real-life, interactive screensaver. My initial idea was that phase 2 of this project would be to actually try to be something of a storm chaser and project a video onto a tornado. In this piece I wouldn’t say I was working on those happiness tangents, but that it was closer to the idea that I was trying as many things as possible: interactivity, collaborative work where the other person isn’t present, as well as using fans and foam. One thing the video doesn’t capture is that there is a quick rainbow where the pieces are moving so fast that they kind of split up the RGB midair as they reflect into your eye.
MP: At this point, how much of your work is created with the use of computer technology? Would you say that this is a result of a natural inclination toward new technologies on your part, or do you use computers of out necessity to create particular kinds of work?
CT: Computer technology is a staple of our generation. I use free internet programs not just for their aesthetics but also to reference the fact that the people who have made very thoughtful, complex programs have decided somehow that they should be free and accessible. The technology I use, whether it’s used in industrial practices or not, tell a story about the kinds of tools we have at our fingertips; it’s a reflection of the times we live in.
MP: What programs do you use? Are they mostly designed for artists or do you find new uses for programs from other fields?
CT: My programs for now are a secret. I’m talking with more programmers that I know as well, instead of researching free online programs. I’ve actually tried to turn my Brixels into a tapestry using a computerized loom, and that has its own program making tool as well, but I’ll have to consult more experts about how to translate how I come up with my designs with how to input them into the computer.
MP: The Kresge Arts Fellowship and the Brixel murals that resulted from it cast you in the public eye as a something of a street artist, which is not your background. What’s that been like? Have the Brixels whetted your appetite for future incarnations of the public version of your practice, or are you happier in the studio?
CT: I am very pleased with how the Brixels have come along; in a way it’s almost like my first major known work, which is fantastic. Everything has worked out to my greatest expectations. Also, I’ve talked with you about this before, but I don’t feel like I make street art as much as I feel like I make generative art, or perhaps community-based artwork.
(I don’t know how to fully describe being ‘happy’ in the studio, to be honest. I’m happier with how I live my life than how I spend my hours making things. I’m sure it’s like exercise, where you get endorphins as you work your body out, but somehow to me, artwork is always tough, and with each time I stand back to look at what I made I feel on edge, as if I’ve barely made it work.)
In terms of the attention I get from being a Kresge Fellow, I’ve become that much more of an advocate for the arts. Specifically for the art scene in Detroit, the Kresge Foundation, and especially for supporting artists to do what they do. The best example of that are my entries on thedetroiter.com. I’m taking the bullhorn that they have given me to shout my praises of my other favorite artists who have been absolutely supportive. Speaking of which, In no particular order those people are Andrew Thompson, Megan Heeres, Ian Swanson, Simone DeSousa and Faina Lerman.
MP: About that: in addition to being a Detroit artist, you’ve also been committed to enriching the somewhat impoverished information infrastructure surrounding Detroit art. You’ve made a database of current exhibitions available to artists and arts writers, created The Detroiter, a website devoted to covering the art scene, and built webpages for artists who don’t have them. This is such important work, and there’s still so much more to be done. What’s drawn you to it, and if someone’s reading this who thinks they could contribute to improving the conversation about Detroit art, what can they do?
CT: I consider conversations about Detroit Art to be tied to the larger need for an infrastructure for artists, and The Detroiter gives me a lot of excuses to see other people’s studios and to be opinionated and really to improve my own art practice. Perhaps I believe in karma here: the more energy I put out into showing how much of a fan I am of other people, the more I’ll be closer to the creating the work I was meant to make. I’m very proactive about creating the kind of community I would want to be in. I’d like to think that it’s part of being a well rounded artist by engaging in curating, writing, attending, critiquing and promoting. If someone wants to contribute to improving the conversation, it might be as simple as being honest with yourself and not being anonymous about your opinions. I’d like to see more people really own their positions and argue them for the sake of their own practice, not for reaching any compromise, necessarily, but to present as many perspectives as exist.
MP: You’re about to start grad school in Glasgow. You said recently that you were going from Detroit to the “Detroit of Europe.” What are you looking forward to about working in Glasglow? What are you going to miss about Detroit?
CT: Well, maybe not the Detroit of Europe, but it definitely shares a post-industrial past and a new identity as a must-see place for artists. There are a lot of artists I really like in Glasgow, from Martin Creed to Belle and Sebastian. I look forward to not really knowing what I’m getting myself into and getting away from the very real possibility of doing the same thing for years in Detroit. I will, however, miss all the outsider art that is in Detroit (here’s a bunch), the diversity of practically living in Hamtramck [a Detroit enclave and the most internationally diverse city in Michigan], and the comforting feeling that Detroit is home.
Matthew Piper is a Detroit-based librarian and writer.