Human infrastructure can only withstand so much benign neglect before returning to nature. Much like the children of bohemian parents or the subjects of laissez-faire governments, the physical structures of built space will eventually succumb to wildness if left too long on their own. In no city is this process more apparent than in Detroit, where creeping vines engulf Victorian homes, trees sprout from the roofs of skyscrapers, and packs of wild dogs roam the streets. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the city for decades, disseminating a sense of wildness that many proclaim is a promise of renewal rather than an admission of failure.
Surveying the expanse of Detroit prairie, it does indeed appear that the city has been given a proverbial green slate upon which to rebuild and flourish as a newly incarnated future city. The future has not arrived yet, however; so for the moment, many Detroiters are making do as only Detroiters know howâ€”embracing the period of transition with resourcefulness, ingenuity, and a sense of possibility.
Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking has been a life-long observer of a city in flux. His work explores the physical and psychological thresholds between crumbling infrastructure and flourishing nature. Through tactics that are technically illegal and certifiably insane, Hocking traverses vacant sites in forgotten corners of the world that are on the verge of collapse. His practice involves site-specific installation and documentary photography, where industrial debris becomes the backdrop for monumental sculpture. Beyond being the Andy Goldsworthy of urban detritus, Hockingâ€™s work arrests the ephemeral, and reminds us that decay is an equal cause for celebration within the journey we call progress.
Recently, I had a conversation with Scott amidst the well-categorized clutter of his Detroit studio.
Discussed: Kangaroos and giant lizards, the end of mystery, fucking with everything, scrappers, documenting survival, a four-story collapse, making lemonade out of lemons.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: The most immediately striking attribute of your work is your depiction of site. Your photos have this other-worldly quality, like weâ€™re looking at bacteria blooming on a Petri dish rather than an actual place. Working internationally, you must see quite a bit, and Iâ€™m wondering how you select where to work. What is it about these sites that you find compelling?
Scott Hocking: Itâ€™s hard for me even to articulate what it is that threads through everything that I do. Itâ€™s easiest to say that I work site-specifically, that I really just try to get a sense of a space and get ideas from my surroundings and from its history. I work differently in different places, but I end up being drawn to places that end up being somewhat forgotten, or maybe thereâ€™s a sense of mystery, or of chaos, or of loss of control. I feel like when nature reclaims places thereâ€™s a feeling that humans have stopped controlling it and itâ€™s gone back to this wild, organic way of moving and living. Often times, that can involve the decaying of the structures that weâ€™ve built. Iâ€™m not particularly drawn to abandonment or decay by themselves, but I have an interest in these places that give me a sense of solace. In Detroit, going into an abandoned auto factory is my walk in the woods. Itâ€™s the closest I can get to the top of a mountain peakâ€”the top of a building. This is where I get my sense of wildnessâ€”my satisfaction in nature. I did this project in Australia in October, and I was in the bush. I loved it, because that was itâ€”I was getting it from my everyday life. I walked out of my space to see kangaroos in the morning, and I hiked into the mountain and ran into giant lizards. I donâ€™t get that here, but I crave that wildness, and I think I get it from these spaces that have begun to be reclaimed by nature.
SMP: It interests me that you characterize your work as site-specific, because your images also express a certain universality, or an ambiguity in the way of place. Is this intentional?
SH: I think, for me, I may work from the site and get ideas from the history and the site itself, but in the end, what I want the images to convey is something more universal. I donâ€™t want people to look at the image and think: Oh, this is Detroit. Sure, people might recognize it, or know it knowing that my work is based here. But, I do try and emphasize that this could be anywhere, and what is behind it speaks to people everywhereâ€¦ It might sound grandiose or dramatic, but Iâ€™m trying to talk about peopleâ€”about humans on earth, what we do, what weâ€™ve always done, how weâ€™re really no different than weâ€™ve ever been. When I put a pyramid in an abandoned building, one of the many things that Iâ€™m thinking about is the fact that itâ€™s a ruin within a ruin. One is ancient, and Iâ€™m building a new one, and whatâ€™s the difference? Why do we look at some ruins with reverence, and see others as failures? Why canâ€™t we realize that weâ€™ve been creating things since the dawn of time, making structures and objects with our hands, and at some point they decay, at some point the civilization that made it fails, at some point the city in which it was made disappears? Itâ€™s not the endâ€”thereâ€™s never an ending. So maybe thereâ€™s a certain countering to the idea that this is the end of something, that this is a failed city, or a failed industrial age. I just see it as a constant cycle that weâ€™re in the middle of. I just try to find the beauty in all the stages.
SMP: You seem to take an almost ethnographic approach to collecting data on decaying works of culture. Do you see yourself as an urban anthologist in a way?
SH: I was transient for years, and didnâ€™t go to art school until I was about 22. When I first went to college, I had lots of interests including anthropology. I took a number of courses actually, and I found out very quickly that I am way too impatient for the scientific method. So, for me to claim that Iâ€™m an ethnographer, anthropologist, archaeologist, you name it, would be a slap in the face to those who have studied for all those years. Iâ€™m an amateur at bestâ€”I feel like I have the curiosity, without any of the knowledge. If I was to excavate anything, youâ€™d find out what an amateur I am. Iâ€™m okay with wrenching something to death, just shaking it until it falls loose, or kicking it until itâ€™s down… I have no problem fucking with everything, and Iâ€™m sure scientists would be a lot more finicky about disturbing the site.
SMP: It seems that the installation-aspect of your practiceâ€”the way that you build in the field to create sculptural works within these sites, speaks to processes of myth-making. Is myth something you consciously incorporate into your work?
SH: Yeah, for sure. I love mythology, and Iâ€™ve started to really become inspired by ancient ideasâ€”mythologies and ancient sciences more than anything. I donâ€™t pay attention to the current art sceneâ€”I donâ€™t know what is hip right now. I just know that my ideas come from generations ago, and somehow Iâ€™m more inspired by that. Mythology is exists outside of timeâ€¦
One thing that I appreciate about ancient ideas is that they were often more lyrical, and there was a sense of mystery. Today, weâ€™ve destroyed all our mysteries! Weâ€™ve figured them all out and are looking at them with telescopes or microscopes, taking things apart. I feel like there isnâ€™t enough mystery, whereas in ancient times and myth, there was a lot. If you even read it now, you donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re talking about; so thereâ€™s a part of me that likes to try and create this sense of mystery or myth when Iâ€™m in these buildings. And it could be as simple as someone coming into a building and discovering the Ziggerat, or discovering the TVs on the columns in the Garden of the Gods. It could be as simple as me creating a sense of: who the hell did this? When did this happen? What the fuck is this?! For example, building the pyramidâ€”itâ€™s a universal symbol that has existed on all continents since weâ€™ve first started building things, and we have no idea why. Itâ€™s still a mystery to this day. Some people might look at my work and think: wow, this is an amazing thing, while others might look at it and laugh. It might be a joke, and I love how it can be interpreted in so many different ways because itâ€™s an archetypal symbol. I like playing around, to be honest. Thereâ€™s a part of me thatâ€™s very serious, and thereâ€™s a part of me that likes having a sense of humor about things. I like being open minded and I like that art can be perceived differently by different people because of our different backgrounds, and god knows what. So I donâ€™t like to narrow in too much. I like to maintain that nebulous quality.
SMP: Can you speak a bit more to your process? How do your projects, like Garden of the Gods, [which was installed and photographed in Detroitâ€™s landmark Packard Plant], usually unfold?
SH: Garden of the Gods was fun because those pedestals were formed when the roof collapsed and those columns were still standing. Immediately I thought of pedestals. If youâ€™ve ever been to Rome or any of the ancient cities, they have statues up on pedestalsâ€”gods or warriors to be revered. I thought there needs to be some gods up there, and as luck would have it, in another part of the building that was used for storage was filled with television sets. Hundreds. And this was almost too easy for meâ€”the idea is almost too simplistic that the TVs are new gods, and Iâ€™m going to put them up on these pedestals. But I have to admit that it was just too good to resist. Iâ€™m sure other artists would have taken it a step further, but for me, Iâ€™m a simple guy, so I thought: these are our new gods, Iâ€™m going to put them up on the pedestals, and Iâ€™m going to name them after the twelve classical Greek Pantheon gods.
In the end, it was all for an image, but I love the idea that people will come across the actual objects. That interaction is a significant part of the way Iâ€™m working now. I alluded to it earlier when I said that Iâ€™m attracted to places where thereâ€™s a loss of control and a little wildness. Detroit is that kind of place. When Iâ€™m working on projects like this, thereâ€™s also a loss of control in terms of what I might do. I canâ€™t come home to the studio every day and resume working on the same project. Iâ€™m going out to a building I donâ€™t own that could be torn down, burned down, destroyed, renovated, boarded up, somebody could have broken in and knocked over or spray painted what Iâ€™m working on, they could have added to it, or the materials Iâ€™m using could suddenly be gone. There are so many variables I donâ€™t have control overâ€”a hell of a lot of chance involved. Itâ€™s sort of like working on a sculpture, and every night putting it outside to see if someone stole it in the morning. Itâ€™s a real freeing way of workingâ€¦ I just try and trust the universe.
SMP: So I have to ask about the aestheticization of decay, since itâ€™s a very prevalent topic of conversation in the city at the momentâ€¦
SH: Itâ€™s so interesting that no one was saying â€œruin pornâ€ ten years agoâ€¦ Iâ€™ve been really exploring vacant spaces and forgotten places since I was a child. Maybe itâ€™s in my nature, but when I grew up it was near the railroad tracks in a real blue collar neighborhood, so I was exploring these places as a little kid. So the notion of ruin porn, I understand where itâ€™s coming from, but I also feel like the media is coming late to the party.
People have been interested in doing this stuff for a long time, and the city is only now becoming overloaded and flooded with people â€œurban exploringâ€ and taking photographs… Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, so much was abandoned in Detroitâ€”places like the train station, Packard, or Fisher Bodyâ€”these really trademark, vacant buildings in Detroit all happened in the 80s! Itâ€™s amazing, these places looked like people just up and left work one day, and if you were the first guy to get in there, like a scrapper, you wouldnâ€™t have even known the place was abandoned. Coffee would still be out. So, these buildings look a hell of a lot different today than when I began working on this. I have always enjoyed going in these places, and for years I didnâ€™t take photosâ€”I was just using the objects to make work. If I ever brought a camera it was to have an excuse if I got caught. And then very slowly, I started to take photos more because I began to want to document these places before they disappeared. A lot of these places became very cherished to me, and I began to see how fast they were disappearing. I never considered myself a photographer, and it was through the process of taking these initial photographs that I became sensitive to the idea that I was just, as someone put it to me recently, â€œdocumenting survival,â€ and that wasnâ€™t enough for me. So this path was good in the sense that it made me transition into photographing these places as larger installation projects. So now theyâ€™re just setsâ€”I donâ€™t have to create the whole environment, I just need to find the environment I want to create in. Other photographers will create environments in a vacant studio, and for me, my projects allow me to collaborate with buildings and collaborate with sites that I find mesmerizing. I know Iâ€™ve found a place to work in when I want to take a photograph of it alone. If I get that feeling, I think: Okay, this is where Iâ€™m going to build something. This is where I want to interact.
SMP: You really seem to occupy these very uncertain, threshold spaces in the city. Is there a certain adrenaline rush that accompanies this type of work?
SH: That is such a great wordâ€”I love the word threshold. Itâ€™s such an important word for me, because I feel like Detroit is on a threshold. These buildings are on a threshold. These are places in a space between what they were, and what they are going to beâ€”theyâ€™re in transition. Weâ€™re always in transition, but sometimes transitions can take 40-years, or other times transitions can be catastrophic and can happen overnight.
The Packard Building for example, I was working in there through the winter, and by March, I had people coming through to interview me for upcoming exhibitions, [watch a video of Scott giving a tour of the Packard here]. Two weeks later, there was a four-story collapse, right where we were standing! Two weeks later! It was an unbelievable amount of space that just fell, and we all would have been crushed. Iâ€™ve been in buildings and places where Iâ€™ve done dumb thingsâ€”fallen through holes, hit my head, been attacked by dogs. There are a lot of risks you take, and I donâ€™t really get that adrenaline rush anymore, but thereâ€™s something about the way it affects your sensesâ€”they become heightened and aware. Again, in the same way they would be if you were lost in the woods. If you were lost in the woods or at sea, and youâ€™re not in control and youâ€™re not sure if a shark is going to bite you or a bear is going to come at you, that way your senses sort of open up in these situations is the same.
I think that is certainly appealingâ€”that sense of being alive. You notice every fleck of paint on the wall, every sound you hear. A pigeon flies out and you have to be aware that itâ€™s a pigeon and not something about to hit you. Your senses become heightened and I think Iâ€™m very attracted to that too.
SMP: In a way, your work forges new pathways through forgotten places, exposing fissures in the traditional urban network. It brings to my mind the Situationist tactic of dÃ©riveâ€”the practice of walking â€œoff the gridâ€ in search of an unmediated, authentic experience within the urban landscape. Would you describe your process as an act of resistance?
SH: Saying itâ€™s an act of resistance might be a little much… I do feel, though, that the reason I can easily let go of these objects that Iâ€™m making and allow them to be destroyed is because the process is more important to me than the object. So really, these experiences that Iâ€™m trying to seek out, I donâ€™t think I could find them without going â€œoff the grid,â€ so to speak. Off the grid is where I have these experiences in my version of nature and can seek purity and solace, as I mentioned earlier. And itâ€™s not only a walk in the woods for me, but itâ€™s kind of like my church too. It can be a metaphysical thingâ€”I basically meditate when Iâ€™m working in these buildings alone, like a monk stacking blocks in quiet, in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of winter. Itâ€™s a real peaceful, meditative experience to work like this, and often times, I have to break the rules and break the law to find this, but Iâ€™m certainly not going in there and saying: fuck you! Iâ€™m a bit more quiet about it.
Itâ€™s about inner peace and peace of mind than it is about the big FU to the powers that be. Now, on the other hand, if the powers that be were cool about things like this, then I wouldnâ€™t have to break the law.Â I do feel like in a sense: fuck you, because youâ€™ve left these buildings to neglect, you own this space and itâ€™s falling apart. If you own this, Iâ€™m not going to call you up and ask you for permission, because Iâ€™m already pissed that you let it fall apart. I feel like you lose the right to say you own something when youâ€™ve let something so useful and amazing go to waste.
SMP: Weâ€™ve already spoken about the influence of myth, and Iâ€™m wondering if memory comes into play at all when youâ€™re at work in these spaces?
SH: I feel like itâ€™s not my memory most of the time. There are many people who grew up in Detroit or one of the other cities that Iâ€™ve worked in, who might feel nostalgia for the past, and have certain memories of buildingsâ€”maybe even have family members who have worked there. There are all kinds of connections. In fact, when an article comes out, Iâ€™ve gotten emails from people who say: Hey, I used to work there! Whatâ€™s been surprising is that all of these people have written to tell me that they like what I am doing. My own sense of memoryâ€¦ I donâ€™t really connect in that way to these spaces.
I donâ€™t really like the idea of nostalgia, I prefer to focus on the present moment and find the beauty in how things are now opposed to looking back on how they were. I tend to work in buildings that arenâ€™t very personalâ€”theyâ€™re places of workâ€”factories. There may have been thousands of people working and occupying the spaces where I am working at any given moment. These sites donâ€™t quite have that trace, or energy, that a house mightâ€”where people lived and slept, family members loved and grew up. I donâ€™t really work in places like that, and I think part of the reason is because of the memoryâ€”the idea of who they were is still very strong there, and you can feel it and see it sometimes. I think I shy away from that a bit.
SMP: Thereâ€™s such a fantastic history in Detroit, perhaps initiated in the 70s by the Cass Corridor Movement, with artists appropriating materials that are symbolic of crisisâ€”the raw, discarded material of a city, to create artwork.Â I read this great quote the other day that was something along the lines of: we didnâ€™t have much, but we made art with it. Is this idea something that persists today in the city?
SH: I think itâ€™s continued. Personally, I have no history with Cass Corridorâ€”I didnâ€™t grow up knowing about it, and I didnâ€™t know anyone involved until I started making art and meeting people who were part of that. Now weâ€™re good friends, and itâ€™s maybe through meeting people and gaining a bit of knowledge that you start to realize that itâ€™s all connected. For me, itâ€™s less about the linage of the art world in Detroit, and more about Detroiters and the way we are. Most people who grow up in working class families and in working class neighborhoods in the city, this is how we workâ€”we do with what you have, make lemonade out of lemons. Everybody, myself included, who has been making artwork in the city hasnâ€™t had resources to do anything but making with what you have. Sometimes youâ€™re living in squalor and trying to scrape byâ€¦ The Cass Corridor people got a lot of notoriety, but shit, there were artists in the 80s living inside the Broderick Tower and Fort Wayne, and had studios in random skyscrapers that were virtually vacant because no one could afford to do anything in there. These artists may have not gotten the same attention, but that lineage is all the sameâ€”trying to use the spaces that have been neglected because creative people see potential there.
Congratulations to Scott for his award of a 2011 Kresge Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship!
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.