Like many artists based in Detroit, Gregory Holm addresses the physical and social conditions of the post-industrial cityscape. His 2009-10 project, Ice House, sought to bring attention to the 20,000 or so residential properties abandoned in the city by freezing a single-family foreclosed home into a solid block of ice. In addition to producing a spectacular photograph and video, the work cultivated a community surrounding the property, and initiated discourse on potential solutions to repurpose homes and reverse neighborhood blight. Ice House, which was completed in partnership with architect Matthew Radune, is indeed a chilling sight, and the project speaks equally to the national housing crisis as it does to the conditions of neglect specifically in Detroit.
Holm, who was working in New York, recently returned to Detroit to begin his next project, Fire House, an event and sound installation that opens next month. Leading up to Fire House, Holm has curated Haptic Resonance, an exhibition and aural landscape installed in 2:1 Gallery, a pop-up space in Detroit’s Eastern Market. The exhibition features work from a number of local artists, and was produced in collaboration with creative partners Kathy Leisen and Jeffery Williams. I spoke with Holm in 2:1 Gallery with amidst a collage of haptic resonances.
Discussed: Fire and Ice, pyrophones, ruin porn, a new style of everything, mediocre metal, Robocop.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So, what’s going on with the Fire House Project?
Gregory Holm: The Fire House is the old, historic firehouse #4 from 1879 that’s been empty for 25-30 years, and we are taking it, and turning it into a staging area and sound installation. We’re going to attach 36 tuned glass tubes [which will construct a pyrophone] to the façade of the structure, and all of the compositions—I’ve gotten six contemporary composers to write pieces based off the different tonal centers of the glass. It will be a staging area for an hour and a half long concert at the end of July… I’m taking a step back from making art, and I’ve become the director. I’ve created 4-5 themes for kids to write lyrics about. The lyrics are then given to the composers, and those composers are taking the lyrical content and creating music, the whole piece is then given to the Children’s Choir, who will sing it…I am also shooting a photograph, and there’s a chance I may shoot a film.
This idea came to me because I had a meeting in New York and someone said to me: “We loved your Ice House, why don’t you do another project? Give me a proposal, and I’ll try to get you funding.” And I came up with this project over the weekend. At the time, we didn’t have a firehouse, and I never would have called this Fire House—I did not want to do that. We had a space, we began working, and it didn’t seem right—it just didn’t seem like the right space. So we began driving around, and we stumbled upon this structure that was beautiful. We immediately went downtown, found out who owned the building and signed a lease with them. So then, what do we call it? Fire House came up as a joke, but when we sat down with the Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, he was like: “It makes total sense. Go with it.” And if the director of the museum says to go with it…
SMP: After coating a house in ice, are people thinking your turning to arson?
GH: I can pretty much guarantee there won’t be more something House projects. But, I think it’s really incidental to what’s happening with the whole project. What it’s called is just what it’s called.
SMP: Can you elaborate on how the Fire House project is a continuation of the dialog begun by the Ice House project?
Gregory Holm: I’m a Detroiter, I’ve been here my whole life; however, I’ve been in New York as well for the past 5 years, and going back and forth working as a photographer out there and coming back here to do my personal projects. We started with the Ice House project, which was pretty successful in terms of how many people were interested in it and picked up on it. What we wanted to do is create that as a first chapter and have a continuation. Instead of talking about the sad aspect of the housing crisis, we wanted to take an abandoned building—in the case of Fire House, a full, historic firehouse from the 1850s—and turn it into a staging area for playing music, specifically involving children. So, it spoke more to the positive aspects that lie dormant in the city and how we can really, with a little bit of foresight and a lot of time and collaboration with these kids, get them to be a part of a larger project—something that they can look back at in ten years and say: “We did this amazing thing with musicians from the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra), crazy contemporary artists, and we wrote lyrics!” [The Fire House project] can create this memory that would perhaps allow them the encouragement to be artists, and do really sophisticated work.
SMP: It is my understanding that there was a bit of controversy surrounding Ice House, in that its spectacularness spoke to some of the “ruin porn” being produced in the city. Did this critique of Ice House inform your process for Fire House?
GH: I don’t know what the criticism would be. I think the difference between ruin porn and what the Ice House was is that ruin porn captures this obviously destructive aspect of a city, and capitalizes on it. In this way, taking photos distances you from the city. We really wanted work with a community, and go into a community and create a beacon of dialogue, say: “Hey! Come around here!” And we didn’t have to encourage the neighborhood—we were out there for 24-hours straight for a month. I think it’s very different. The amount of endurance and physical challenge that we put on ourselves. Criticism? I dunno. I’m a photographer, I wanted to do a photograph, and we have a beautiful photograph from it. The production itself just took it to a whole other level as far as I’m concerned. And yeah, [Fire House] is a continuation. We do address different issues now. I did see a lot of what was lacking in that project. The idea of taking something that is negative and turning it into something beautiful, which I guess could be seen as “ruin porn,” I’m not sure. Here we’re starting from the ground-up, removing myself from the project in a way that we can only encourage the city to move forward in a very specific and productive way.
A lot of people who saw the project knew me as a New Yorker, but I moved to Detroit in 1992 right out of high school. At the time, there was nowhere to see music, get a drink—it was a very different place. I stayed here for a long time, and really a hope that the city would transform into something that would allow me to be a part of this larger picture of creative investigation into the city. It just didn’t happen though. Then when I left five-years ago, it started, and I just kept turning my head back. I was coming back here, like, every two months or something—I still have a house here—and now it’s to the point where this is an amazing landscape and there’s a lot of potential here right now. I have a very intimate relationship with the city and with the community of people who have been here for a long time.
SMP: I’m wondering if you could elaborate on the expansion from the micro, neighborhood-based dialog of Ice House, to the macro, city-based interaction of Fire House?
GH: It’s an interesting process, because I never saw myself as someone who was dealing with social issues. I’ve never been that person—I don’t volunteer my time, I never have. I just do things that I think about, that in my mind are sort of complete and I’m able to say: “Okay, I’m going to do that,” and that’s the beginning of the process. In this project, there’s a huge connection with social aspects and with youth in particular. We’re dealing with a lot of different groups, and we’re trying very actively to connect with a lot of different people. Often we sit back and have to question what we’re trying to do here, and ask: “Are we diluting our process of doing very avant garde pieces—creating strange spaces like [the 2:1 Gallery]?” But there’s something very unique about where the city is at right now, and that it’s receptive. Every event we have in here we have over 100 people, and they’re new people that I don’t know, and they’re coming from all over the place, and they’re receptive to very different types of things. But there’s a lot of questioning in my own head, like: “Am I a social activist now? What am I doing? Does the work suffer because I’m looking at two different things?” But I think with Detroit, it’s calling for a new style of everything. If we’re going to reinvent the city, it’s going to be done in a very different way, and everyone is looking at a lot of the resources that are here. You can’t do anything in this city without having an investment in what is the fabric of the place. The idea of creating this situation so children 10-20years old can be a part of it… Just imagine what they could do in another ten-years. That’s where my head is at the moment. It’s not real thought out—I don’t write about it or really try to investigate it, the process is just very natural.
SMP: And you’ve been able to retain your practice as a photographer…
GH: Yeah, I love photography. I’m bringing in again, Richard Sands, who is the director of light for Gregory Crewdson, and I worked with him years ago. We’re going to light up Saint Anne’s Church and the Fire House, and do another 8’x10’ photograph, which is really exciting for me.
I started as a musician. I studied music with La Monte Young in 1995, and I played music for a decade. I’m very interested in microtonalality, and the resonating and acoustic qualities of sound. For me, coming back, and being able to create a space like [Haptic Resonance] on the fly—it came as an idea, and within two weeks we had a show, and it was amazing.
SMP: That’s Detroit.
GH: Yeah! It is. And there’s so many great resources. These are all friends of mine that I asked, and within a week we filled the space with these interesting things. So it is interesting to be able to retain this idea of my practice as a photographer but my roots are really in sound, so it’s really nice for me to be able to go back to the 90s when I was doing sound regularly.
I have a close relationship with that neighborhood [in southwest Detroit], like I did with the neighborhood of the Ice House in the east side. I grew up there for a short time with my Mother as a young child, and two blocks from where the firehouse is is where my Grandmother was brought up. So it’s going back to this maternal home in some ways, which is really nice for me to be over there and drive down her street.
SMP: Is the Fire House project about changing the experience of growing up in Detroit for young people?
GH: Yeah, I think there are a lot of gaps in this city. There are a lot of groups, say Southwest Solutions, who have a lot of money because they are really good talkers, and they have these spaces, and they have these poetry groups, and they get thousands and thousands of dollars to support it; but when you go to one of these poetry groups there’s one kid in there, and they don’t have transportation. So there are a lot of gaps, and we’re trying to think of ways of filling them in ways that really make sense that don’t just get to the punch line without figuring out the ramp that’s going to get people there. There is no sound space in Detroit, and it made sense to do this. We can do it well. We can investigate a lot of different things that are sort of missing in the city right now. I’m sure it’s going to be a completely different place in ten-years from just seeing what has happened in the past few. And to be a part of it is really exciting.
SMP: Do you feel that it’s the responsibility of artists through their projects to locate and fill these voids?
GH: It’s definitely creating dialog. Whether or not you agree with a Robocop sculpture downtown; there are so many different layers of how you could consider that. We look at a balloon sculpture or a Michael Jackson sculpture and somehow that is contemporary art that is worthy of millions of dollars, but a Robocop has somehow crossed the line. You could also consider the fact that a lot of the people that have problems with it drive down Woodward and go to Hart Plaza on a daily basis and somehow don’t notice that that contemporary art which cost hundreds of thousands, and which is just awful to look at, and it just fills every void in the space—there can’t be more room for more mediocre metal!—and somehow, people don’t argue with that, but they argue with young kids from some other part of the country who have a crazy idea. Ultimately, I think it speaks to something else that is happening. We get a lot of outsiders here that are very ambitions because they haven’t been wading through the same waters of Detroit as people who have been here for the past 20-years. It’s just a matter of what kind of ambition you’re bringing to the table, and what kind of energy and hard work. It’s just inspiring being in a space you can create new ideas from.
Haptic Resonance will be exhibited at 2:1 Gallery through June 16, 1480 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit. It features the work of Clem Fortuna, Heather Hagborg, Frank Pahl, Ron Zakrin, Jeffrey Williams, Gregory Holm, Graem Whyte, Ian R. Clark and Jeff Karolski.
Fire House will open July 22, 8:55pm, at Engine Company #4, 1016 18th Street, Detroit, and will feature the Street Poets’ Society and Detroit Children’s Choir, as well as original music and sound art composed for the event.
Ice House is currently on display at the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Auckland, New Zealand. The work will be featured in the exhibition No Object is an Island, at Cranbrook Art Museum, opening November 2011.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.