Open Engagement 2013 no. 02 : A Utopia of Dispute Might Be Better / Regarding Ethics & Failure

May 18, 2013 · Print This Article

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I keep trying to trace emergent themes at Open Engagement. Our organizers have done a good job of marking three umbrella categories, under which each panel, presentation or discussion resides. These headings, Publics, Contexts, and Institutions, feel like hubs through which a larger, interconnected current runs. One conversation bleeds into the next. Institution could be one example of a context, for instance. An institution could also be populated by a  public, but neither “Contexts” nor “Publics” rely exclusively on “Institutions.” The project of this particular conference, one might say, is to investigate the way socially engaged art practice runs through (or negotiates) those headers.

That said, I am hunting around for additional trends, for theoretical concerns that crop up continually in the subtext of various presentations, reflecting perhaps on a collective undertow that Social Practice artists are preoccupied with. There is something problematic about my efforts. It’s an artificial exercise in a way, especially when the subject of presentations — not to mention the styles of address — are so broad. My insights are additionally subjective, stemming from what panels I’ve seen and how the concerns therein stick to my ribs.

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Still, I persist. Obviously this is a post that I deliberately published. Obviously I am interested in failing a little bit. I’m emboldened by the fact that failure, as a topic, is one of those recurring themes. Failure and the equally nebulous question about ethics. These subjects bubble to the surface not only in talks themselves, but also in audience questions. For instance, “I feel there is a danger that the projet you described could waste someone’s time. Someone in your intended audience for instance. How can you be sure you’re not doing that? What can you guarantee your public?” It suggests the artist ought to deliver something, and ideally that whatever is delivered is good, or worthy of (in this instance) one’s time. Ethics and failure are linked up with responsibility in this regard — conveying a feeling that something in works of art that rely on audience participation ought to offer or fulfill something.

First let me make a case for the #EthicsTrend. In an account of Friday’s panel, “Sociology (of and) for Socially Engaged Practice, Institute for Art Scene Studies” I was told Pablo Helguera, Barbara Adams, David Peppas, and Adeola Enigbokan staged a kind of reductio proof of what not to do as a social practice artist. I missed it, unfortunately, but heard that someone posed as an artist, presenting a series of ill-advised projects to the panel, pretending to be an artist. (For instance, the acting artist claimed to have done a project where s/he gave up all possessions in order to see what it was like to live under the poverty line.) The panel then critiqued these projects, highlighting what exactly was ill-advised about them. (Using the same example, the panel pointed out that the artist was able at any time to reenter her/his life of material stability). This was relayed to me by a rather horrified member of the audience who, at the end of her account, leaned in conspiratorially and whispered “And it was all a hoax! The ‘artist'” (she used scare quotes) “was making it all up!” seeming at once relieved and frustrated that she had been duped. In a later panel that same day, “What’s the Harm of Community Arts and Social Practice? The Ethics of Engagement and Negative Value,” Marnie Badham, Amy Spiers, Claude Schryer, and Dr. Kathleen Irwin wrestled with questions of how and when artists intrude on a public. In her opening remarks, Badham noted first, “this turn to community is rarely explored critically,” and then asked “is social change always good?” An ethical approach is often taken for granted in socially engaged art. There is an implied use or service tends to go hand in hand with these social experiments. A desire to save the world, or at least some very small piece of it.

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Here the idea of failure comes in — because, in a way it is impossible to save the world. However in articulating an attempt, I would argue, the art project sets out to “do” something. As such it becomes easier to measure and assess.  Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have to do anything. But if that’s the case, one’s ability to measure success and failure becomes more difficult. And, perhaps, more interesting. For instance, this morning at “Craft + Social Practice: A Roundtable Conversation” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a group of panelists (Gabriel Craig, Ayumi Horie, Stacy Jo Scott, Michael J. Strand, moderated and organized by Sarah Margolis-Pineo) described their relationship to failure. Many suggested that failures provided new opportunities for insight — Gabriel Craig talked about “Slow Gold,” a project based on ethical metal sourcing, where he and four collaborators went to the Black Mountains in South Dakota to find gold for a couples’ wedding bands. (The betrothed couple participated in this project.) They could only find .4 grains. His conclusion, “Mining, no matter what scale it’s on is absolutely catastrophic for the environment.” On that same panel, Stacy Jo Scott of the Craft Mystery Cult confessed, “Occult is always dealing with failure. That’s because we have this desire to speak of ideals, in terms of an ideal poetic space, but also in terms of utopic vision. Knowing the failures of past utopias, but still desiring Utopia. What results is the absurd: optimism in the face of futility.”

Stacy Jo Scott, "Mobile Craft Utopia," 2011, Fufu bowl, indigo-dyed sponge, 500 year old vietnamese pottery, iron oxide rock, mold, Anasazi pottery shard, fragment from Donald Judd's studio wall, chakusa, hand-blown glass, Chartreuse liqueur, wild rabbit fur, iron tumbler, wax drip, earthenware marijuana pipes, iron lingam, Josef Albers color theory cards, book, photo of Shunryu Suzuki, 8"x16"x34"

Stacy Jo Scott, “Mobile Craft Utopia,” 2011, Fufu bowl, indigo-dyed sponge, 500 year old vietnamese pottery, iron oxide rock, mold, Anasazi pottery shard, fragment from Donald Judd’s studio wall, chakusa, hand-blown glass, Chartreuse liqueur, wild rabbit fur, iron tumbler, wax drip, earthenware
marijuana pipes, iron lingam, Josef Albers color theory cards, book, photo of Shunryu Suzuki, 8″x16″x34″

Keep this idea of ethics in one hand. Hold in your other hand the idea of failure. Now imagine yourself in the Shattuck Annex, sitting (like I was) in chair with a small desk attached. It is the sort of desk students often use. The sort of desk I haven’t sat in for years. Keep in mind it is raining outside and the opening bars of Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” is playing on a loop. People shuffle in slowly. Some are ushered to an overflow room when the room is at capacity. In that room this afternoon, Claire Doherty gave a fantastic keynote, opening with an observation that keynote speakers have the ability to highlight and anchor conversations in a conference. The keynote provides a kind of watering hole – a central point in the middle of the day during which most conference-goers sit in the same room, sharing the same experience, after scattering out again to different panels, rendez-vous, and performances. Doherty hastened to remind everyone about the underbelly of social practice — that many projects, while on the one hand providing photographs of an engaged and happy public digging ditches and/or eating ice cream often come out of duress or protest. These works have the ability to engage a collective, public imagination because they tend to address points of tension. She went on to discuss Nowhere Island, a project by Alex Hartley produced by Situations — the organization Doherty directs. As a travelling landmass, self-designated as a site belonging to no-country, Nowhere Island became another version of Utopia. Pulled by a tug boat through international waters, it visited many ports, acquiring 23,003 citizens over the course of a single year. There is much more to the story, of course, but I like situating this island in this post because the land mass in an of itself is what Doherty might call a “charismatic object,” a physical object both engaging and alluring to a public imagination. This object was capable of, again in Doherty’s words, “Nourishing the capacity for creative illusion, [such that a public was able] to act and think as though things were different.” In and of itself the island is not ethical, but it enables a public to explore their own Utopian expectations thereby exploring the problems that such ideals might subsequently create.

 

Now, open your hand.

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In Tim Etchells words, “A Utopia of dispute might be better:”

Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland

as we stop in the shelter of a doorway in the thunderstorm
S. holds out his hand to check the rain.

The hand. The flatness of it. The open-ness. The question of it. The directness. The simplicity. The pragmatism. The straightforwardness. The sunshine.

And maybe just the repetition of this gesture, which must be as old as the hills, as old as the co-presence of hands and rain. 

(read more of Etchells’ Nowhere Island response)

 




Play By Play : What to Expect in the Coming Months

January 18, 2013 · Print This Article

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I came on as the Managing Editor of the Bad at Sports blog about a month ago. It’s been an exciting turn and I hope to do well by it. A few people have asked what my vision going forward is, and I thought I might say something about it here. I hope to continue reflecting on the dynamic energy in Chicago’s contemporary art world while connecting to conversations and aesthetic agendas in other cities and disciplines. That agenda was set in place a while ago and I believe I can continue to guide and focus that intention. There is room for experimentation in that vision, which seems necessary to me. Bad at Sports has never presented a tidy, singular package and as such, I believe it would go against the nature of the project to filter content and tone through a single, editorial lens. Its roots in independent, DIY and Punk Rock collectivism remain at the heart of the project’s vitality and the blog is a platform for unique and individual voices that pass through the subject of contemporary art and culture. As such it becomes a nexus of concerns and responses to culture at large. That is something I hope to preserve under my stewardship. As an artist-run forum, Bad at Sports has the unique capacity to reflect on a host of subjects, exposing the intellectual, aesthetic and social networks that define and subsequently influence cultural production. I believe it is our job to explore and discuss the contexts we inhabit. In doing so, we further establish a living touchstone and future archive of contemporary discourse.

Some changes should be apparent already — others will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle in the coming months. The process is organic, but I’ve been trying to set up a casual, thematic architecture  that unfolds over the course of a given week. Eventually, I hope to schedule two posts a day, one before 2pm and one after. Built in to this, is room for special occasions and guest writers — those posts would either go live in the evenings, or fill in existing gaps. To that end I’ve been inviting a number of new writers, many of whom I have admired for a long time.

Here is something of a loose schedule:

Mondays: Essays and reflections from old favorites Jeriah Hildewin, Shane McAdams and Nicholas O’Brien — writers who have been posting with consistent dedication. In addition, I’m excited to announce a new bi-weekly column by Dana Bassett, whom you may know for her ACRE Newsletters.

Tuesdays are dedicated to three subjects: Performance, Social Practice, Language (or the performance thereof) and Object Oriented Ontology. Confirmed participants include longstanding contributor Abigail Satinsky and Mary Jane Jacob (Social Practice), Anthony Romero and João Florêncio (performance), Gene Tanta (language), Robert Jackson (OOO).

On Wednesdays, we will read about artists and art in other cities. The following writers will post on rotation: Jeffery Songco is covering the Bay Area, Sam Davis continues to represent Bad at Sports’ Los Angeles Bureau, Sarah Margolis-Pineo is writing about Portland. Juliana Driever will be relaying posts, interviews and artist profiles about New York, and then we’ll bring it back to the Midwest with Kelly Shindler’s dispatch from St. Louis, and Jamilee Polson Lacy writing about Kansas City.

Thursdays herald our illustrious Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks and a new monthly contribution from author/translator Johannes Göransson whose writing you can also find here.

Fridays have been set aside for art reviews and artist profiles with contributions from Danny Orendoff, Monica Westin, Abraham Ritchie and myself.

WEEKENDS will feature a range and flux of the above, plus Brit Barton’s Endless Opportunities, cultural reflections and short essays by Terri Griffith, continued posts from Jesse Malmed, in addition to a monthly contribution from the newly confirmed Bailey Romaine and Adrienne Harris.

My last note is this — there is room in this schedule for additional posts, posts that would feature special events, festivals and conferences in the city. That space would also be available to, at times, connect the blog and the podcast. As a first indication of this, we will be highlighting IN>TIME, a performance festival that is going on as we speak, from January until March.

Otherwise if you have any comments, suggestions or, even guest posts you would like to submit, please feel free to contact me at: caroline@lanternprojects.com




Catie Newell: Second Story Opens at Extension Gallery Thursday Night!

June 22, 2011 · Print This Article

Catie Newell, Second Story.

Just a heads’ up that tomorrow night, Thursday June 23nd, architect and designer Catie Newell’s project Second Story will have its opening at Extension Gallery for Architecture here in Chicago. Our Detroit correspondent Sarah Margolis-Pineo will be posting an interview with Catie Newell in the next few days. Photographs of Newell’s project Salvaged Landscape caught my eye last year, and ever since I’ve been wanting to learn more about her practice and the innovative ways she helps us to re-think the existing urban environment.

Catie Newell, Salvaged Landscape. Detroit, MI.

 

Here’s some background on Newell’s Second Story project and its team; visit her website for more information on her work.

Amplifying, transporting, and distorting the volumes surrounding and within a contested existing domestic environment, Second Story reconfigures spaces that were once familiar into an “other” occupation and visual register. Used to imprint the space and excite the atmosphere, this inhabitable texture is driven by the manipulation of factory standard acrylic rods to capture, manipulate, and distort the existing volumes of the second story of Spencer’s Funeral home in Flint, Michigan, a house slated for demolition. Inherently transparent, the material both captures and permits the passing of light, visually distorting its presence and the view beyond, through refraction and reflection, altering both the context, the perception of its physical boundaries, and heightening the role of the building in the neighborhood. The work agitates, relocates, and makes accessible new volumes otherwise once unoccupiable: the exterior zone, the wall depth, and the depth of a windowsill. As a further technique of distortion and interplay of tectonic connection and assembly, the acrylic rods are systematically manipulated through the use of heat. One such technique allows for the bending and forming of components to create a pattern that resonates with its context, but also distorts the a priori relationships within the house to construct depth and volume originally unused or nonexistent. A further alteration is the tapering and pulling of the material, developing extensions and strands that flee in a near weightless in pursuit of space, altering the perception and depth they occupy. The otherness of Second Story is further heightened by suspending the piece above the ground by tethering it to the building’s roof trusses so that it hovers to promote a ephemeral sense of space, an attuned acknowledgement of its surrounding, and an implied stretched atmosphere.

Project Team:
Lauren Bebry
Chuck Newell
Katie Schenk
Grant Weaver
Lisa Sauve
Carolyn Newell
Maciej Kaczynski

 

Catie Newell, Second story.




Letting Non-Makers In: An Interview with The Empowerment Plan’s Veronika Scott

April 22, 2011 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY SARAH MARGOLIS-PINEO

I’ve had the past two weeks to ruminate on the phrase: creative supply chain. The idea was introduced at the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference in Detroit on April 6-7 as an iteration of the creative economy in post-industrial cities. Taking cues from traditional cycles of production, as well as from the information systems of digital technology, the creative supply chain was presented as model to revitalize the 21st century economy through the stimulation of local and well-integrated creative practices.

Following the two, very full days of conference conversation, I was eager to discuss the event with a maker who is already contributing to this notion of the creative supply chain. I made a date to interview Veronika Scott, Detroit wunderkinder and creator of the Empowerment Plan, a project that combines social activism with good design through the production of self-heated and waterproof coats that transform into sleeping bags. I first encountered the Empowerment Plan at a Detroit Soup micro-grant supper back in October, where Veronika spoke about her project over bowls of vegan butternut squash. In the five short months since, the 21-year old designer has been featured on CNN and NPR, sponsored by Carhartt, and taken meetings with the Japanese embassy as well as the Red Cross.

Photo: Frank Parker.

The majority of the attention that the Empowerment Plan has received surrounds the coat itself, which beyond being a potentially life-saving tool for homeless and displaced communities, is a stunning design object made from everyday materials. To create her coats, Veronika has implemented a unique production cycle that relies on the employment of homeless women, usually mothers, who are taught the skills to create and distribute the coats to “unreachable” individuals who are most in need. Integral to this project is the notion of empowerment, which to Veronika, exists in tandem with education and employment. What interests me about this project is how the coat becomes a model for the cycle that produces it—both are fully sustainable systems that promote independence, wellbeing, and inherently, empowerment of both user and maker.

Photo: Brittany Thomasson

Veronika is first and foremost a designer, who operates at that curious intersection of culture and social activism. Her praxis has swung a wide arc between fine art and manufacturing, but in essence, her process is to locate a problem, and creatively work to produce a solution. To achieve this, she utilizes tools from the business world as well as the creative sector, and will unabashedly network for material or intellectual gain. She has an uncontrollable passion for issues relating to homelessness. At first, I mistook her zeal for youthful exuberance, but through our conversation, I realized that this almost-college-graduate is well on her way to becoming a predominant voice in humanitarian design.

This conversation was recorded in a bougie coffee shop in Royal Oak, a suburb north of Detroit, which struck me as an ironic venue, until our conversation was interrupted by an older man who decided to clip his fingernails at an adjacent table. We weren’t so far from the city after all. Discussed in this interview is that illusive creative supply chain, big, pink band-aids, the collaborative creative processes, and Detroit as a city of makers.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Beginning with the Empowerment Plan, how did that project start?

Veronika Scott: It started first as a school project. At that point, it was literally product design, so I focused on the coat, and the design. I thought: it’s cold, they need something to wear, something to sleep in, something waterproof and self heated, and it started off pretty small.

Veronika Scott

I spent three days a week, every week, for five months with a group of people at neighborhood service organization, which is also known as Viet Nam on the streets. It’s hands down the roughest, most aggressive, most displaced… It’s not even a shelter—it’s a warming station in Detroit! I didn’t know that at the time. I was very naive, and very stupid to go there for the first time.

SMP: Warming station?

VS: It’s somewhere you can go and just sit for 8-hours, and then you get booted out for the next group. So I went there at 8pm, three nights a week, every week of the semester, and continued on to the beginning of the summer. It was through that time that the project did not die. Instead of going: okay guys, semester’s done and I’ve got my grade, I continued to do prototypes with them, and they still continued to test them. Even when I didn’t have anything to show them, I would still go and talk at the same scheduled day, at the same scheduled time every week, just to say that I was there.

SMP: And out of this process emerged a beautiful, as well as a functional, design object. This axis of art and social activism is becoming more prominent, especially here in Detroit through discussions relating to the creative economy. I’m wondering how you see your work fitting into that conversation?

VS: I don’ t see [The Empowerment Plan] as being fine arts. In no way is it fine arts. When the coat idea was lumped in to the project, [a college administrator] wanted me to do gallery shows and this fine art ideation, and I thought: this doesn’t need gallery shows, this needs funding and larger warehouse space. This doesn’t need to show itself off anymore, and it doesn’t need to think about itself—it needs to act. I felt like what I was being asked to do was read through a document and highlight spelling mistakes and errors. I feel like that is fine art: you highlight, you make awareness in the world to a problem. I feel like what my project is, is going in and retyping it. I have a very strong issue with highlighting something, I’ m one of those people who needs to act and do something.

SMP: What did you take from this idea of “creative supply chain” at the Rust Belt conference? Do you feel that business practices should be a more integral part of creative practices?

VS: That’s what I think is really lacking. Yes, there are a lot of great things that come out of fine art in this city. The pink wall, for example, the big pink band-aid, that’s great—it’s highlighting or covering a bruise. But, one: it’s not doing anything; and two: the big issues that those artists aren’t willing or need to be pushed to join up with that sort of commercial, business oriented world that they’re trying to stay away from. There needs to be something lasting, because right now, were in this state of anti-structure in Detroit. I described it as the Wild West of creativity, because you can almost do anything you want if you’re driven enough to get it or do it, which is great. But if there’s not any structure applied to it soon, if there’ s no heavy manufacturers coming in and trying to tie themselves to something… This needs to happen, otherwise it will start to collapse. The pink wall will fade or crumble and disappear. And what are we left with?

SMP: So what advice would you give to the creative community in Detroit to cultivate something lasting—to creatively problem solve and see tangible results?

VS: Start figuring out names. I think it has everything to do with networking. I wouldn’t know anything about what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the brilliant people I surround myself with, and the brilliant people willing to put up with me and my questions. And these are some amazing CEOs, lawyers—some amazing people in all senses of the word. I know artists think they don’t want to reach out to that type of person or that they can’t. You’d be surprised, that even if it’s just googling until you find a name of someone that does clothing manufacturing or kids toys— someone who works for Hasbro. You think you can’t contact them, but you need to try. I’ve emailed hundreds of people to help me with this. Communication is huge. And I think that’s how you apply that structure. You can’t know everything about what you’re doing. There were so many aspects of my project that I didn’t understand, and I still really don’t, but I have people beside me who do.

Photo: Brittany Thomasson

SMP: Collaboration seems to be integral aspect of your practice—you seem to have cultivated all these micro-communities through the process of the Empowerment Plan. Tell me a bit about your involvement with the new project in Corktown, which I understand is based in the idea of collectivity, and bringing together a network of creatives from a range of fields.

VS: [Phil Cooley and collaborators] are bringing together quite an amazing group of people. Everybody from chefs to architects, to engineers, and heads of foundations. Businesspeople! I think this is the typical structure that everyone should have—as eclectic as this. When you build a community you need to have it be eclectic. You can’t just hunt down all your artist friends and call it a day and just make pottery. You need to branch out to people you may be uncomfortable with, and you fully acknowledge are more intelligent than you, and possibly more creative than you. Those are the best people to surround yourself with, and that’s what I see this new warehouse/structure being. It blew my mind that they approached me! These are established artists, designers, chefs. People within the city and outside the city coming in specifically to have a space in this warehouse.

SMP: And this is studio space?

VS: Studio-production space. To pay for the space, we’ll be teaching kids at least 4-hours a month. So that’s like paying rent—we’re expected to teach! Kids are a huge part of this space. Studio space is great, but I’ m not one of those people, anymore or right now anyway, who will use a studio to paint for 10-hours a day. My studio is about producing—getting ideas out, and communicating with others. And my contribution was saying to Phil: You’re talking about kids in the public schools, and we need to branch out to kids who are not in schools at all. I’m bringing this back to homelessness, but that’s what I’m closest to, there’s a huge problem with homeless youth, and they’ re trapped in this deep cycle just like anyone else.

SMP: Do you think the specific conditions here in Detroit have enabled this type of collective, socially conscious, cultural iteration?

VS: Yes. This wouldn’t have been able to happen anywhere else. Perhaps Russia…

SMP: The climate is similar!

VS: The climate is similar, as is the socio-economic status of most of the people who live in Russia. But, I’m not from Russia, and I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the US that I could do this. It has the space. It has the creative community. It has the media attention… It’s a weird place right now—there’s little structure, decaying buildings all over the place, there’s skyrocketing joblessness. So, it’s a weird combination.

SMP: At the conference, I often heard Detroit referred to as a city of makers.

VS: As a city, we’ve been a maker culture since the beginning. When the city was still flourishing, we were a part of making—the hands on production of automobiles, clothing, shoes, and leather goods. We were so tangible. Some of the best goods came out of Michigan, and Detroit in particular, and I think that’s so deeply ingrained in all the generations. The grandfather did cars, and from there, the sons and daughters made products that other places in the country didn’t have the skills to do. Detroit was raised by, and into it. It’s part of everyone’s being—we are a community and city based on producing things. That’s something that is very hard to kill, especially now with the new digital world that is so intangible, a lot of Detroiters didn’t know what to do. When the economy fell and we lost all those production jobs… To this day, people still don’t know what to do without hands-on making.  There are so many skilled people in this city, it’s insane! I think that’s where it has to go again—return to the culture of making, but differently this time. Yes, it did fail, but it did in the rest of the world as well economy-wise. You can’t blame the city, but we’ve been doing it for 20-or so years now, which is longer than the crash. We need to apply new structures and new systems to it, because right now, the old one does not work. The old paradigm for making and producing no longer applies. In order to succeed, we need to think of new ways. This is where the idea of the artist comes in. Looking at something in a different way.

Yes, we are makers, but we can’t rely entirely on that anymore. We need to join forces—business practices are everything. We are a maker community, but we can’t be afraid to let other non-makers in.

 

Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.




X Marks Detroit

April 8, 2011 · Print This Article

UPDATED WITH CORRECTIONS:

We received an email from Carlie Dennis, the exhibitions assistant at MOCAD, containing a few corrections to the piece below concerning the number of visual artists represented in the Art X exhibition at MOCAD. The correct numbers have been noted in bold in the piece, and Dennis’ letter to Bad at Sports containing further clarifying details, etc.  follows the post in an effort to ensure the corrections are clear.  In addition, please note the following exhibition sponsorship information provided to us by MOCAD: The Art X Detroit: Kresge Arts Experience is sponsored by The Kresge Foundation, in partnership with the College for Creative Studies, Artserve Michigan, the University Cultural Center Association (UCCA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).

— Claudine Ise

GUEST POST BY SARAH MARGOLIS-PINEO

It was in 1909 that Marienetti first recounts his fated car crash in the pages of Le Figero. He describes an evening where late-night mythologizing veers poetically into an early morning drive. Three “snorting machines” are caressed and brought to life, and he writes, “a great sweep of madness brought us sharply back to ourselves and drove us through the streets, steep and deep, like dried up torrents.” Torrents, indeed. Of course we know how this ends: one shiny, red roadster meets two cyclists, (“like two persuasive but contradictory arguments”), and crashes grill-first into a gutter filled with the muck of industrial runoff. Overcome by his encounter with the speed and power of mechanical ingenuity, Marienetti emerges from the factory sludge a Futurist—belligerently positioned towards a new era, first will and testament in hand.

Coincidentally, it was this same year that Henry Ford’s Model T made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show, and thusly set into motion the chain of events that would result in the creation of Motor City—a figment of Detroit’s identity that persists over a century later. Artists in Detroit are consumed by the context of the post-industrial, post-urban cityscape. Like Marienetti, they are influenced by the concrete motorways and roaring engines that have shaped the physical space, economy, and consciousness of the city for decades.

Henry Ford and his Model T

Art X Detroit, an exhibition featuring 19 17 of the 36 Kresge Fellowship recipients, opened April 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Wire Car Cruse, an event and subsequent video work, (titled “a dance for Diego,”) by Chido Johnson, deliberately mines the history and present of car culture in Detroit. The Woodward Dream Cruise, now in its 16th year, is an annual event, where more than 40,000 classic cars and roughly 1.5-million spectators assemble along the 16-mile stretch of Woodward Avenue to observe and tailgate, while restored antiques and custom muscle cars takeover the arterial. I will say, that from someone who is admittedly more of a public transportation enthusiast, this weekend-long spectacle does not disappoint. Beer, barbeque, and tricked-out mechanics?! Um, yes, please.

Johnson uses the performance of Dream Cruise as the foundation for his own event, which combines the ritual of the Detroit car cruise with the practice of creating wire cars, a pastime from Johnson’s childhood in Zambia and Zimbabwe. The performance articulates a hybrid cultural activity, which represents the artist’s own negations with subjectivity living between two cultures. Moreover, Johnson’s event cultivated a community of wire car enthusiasts, and in so doing, opened up this history of Detroiters and their cars to new audiences who may have been previously excluded from this specific cultural phenomenon.

The video documenting Wire Car Cruise is juxtaposed with a sculpture entitled, “me me me,” which is a self-portrait of the artist as a carved African statuette installed on a deconstructed cardboard box on the gallery floor. This work further accentuates the search for a sense of identity between cultural spaces—a literal unpacking of the artist as subject. What interests me most about the video, statuette, and their installation at floor level, is their child-scale. The overall impression of the work is a sense of playfulness that Johnson associates with the practice of making. The video work, “a dance for Diego,” takes as its title a sentiment from Diego Rivera who said that the city of Detroit is of makers and dreamers. Johnson’s work at its essence is about making, and reinvigorating this type of creative industry with a sense of joy and wonder.

Chido Johnson, still from the wire car cruise performance, 2011.

Abigail Anne Newbold’s work, “Home Maker,” addresses the urban frontier as an expanse to be explored via bicycle and wagon. In the tradition of the pioneer settlement, the Airstream mobile trailer, and the popup house, this project is comprised of an intricate toolkit with which even the least adept outdoorsman can create a makeshift home. The foundation of the piece is a custom-made bicycle and covered wagon functioning like a rickshaw trailing behind. The accompanying toolkit is exhibited in an arrangement both in the wagon and on a gallery wall, which operates like a hybrid one-bike garage meets REI store display. The literal use of the tools is ambiguous; however, the rugged, weather-ready materials in hazard yellow and orange renders the objects explicitly for outdoor survival.

Abigail Anne Newbold, "Home Maker," 2011 Newbold Tools. (Photo Credit: Dave Lewinski). Newbold tent and wagon courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps this work is a statement on the changing nature of settlement and domesticity given the shifting housing market, or maybe Newbold is supplying tools, (such as a three-fingered pot holder, a bouquet of tent stakes, and wilted bow and quiver of arrows), to the urban ethnographer. Regardless, “Home Maker” is a response to a city in transition, where the untamed urban prairie is an opportunity to develop and implement re-imagined infrastructures for living for the coming century.

Photographer Corine Vermeulen is the spiritual offspring of Dorthea Lange and Buckminster Fuller. Her series, “Your Town Tomorrow, Detroit 2001-2011,” explores the identity of place through portraiture of the everyday Detroiter. Vermeulen’s imagery, through documentary, ventures beyond the sensation-hungry media snapshot of blighted landscape and broken home. In fact, Detroit as an urban, city-subject is barely recognizable. Her subjects are framed by a landscape that has an immediate, visual association with the southern rural rather than the rustbelt. Families and haphazard communities are depicted in the liminal spaces of Detroit—in front of ailing fences, amidst the tall grasses of overgrown urban lots, and on rebuilt bicycles. It is from this ambiguity of place that Vermeulen achieves the futuristic sensibility referenced in the title of the series.

Corine Vermeulen. "Ika and Malik," 2010.

 

Corine Vermeulen. "Oscar," 2010.

The artists refers to her portrait series as “memories of the future.” Like the work of Newbold, Vermeulen portrays a city in transition—its citizens picking up the broken detritus left in the wake of post-industrialzation to re-cultivate land, rebuild homes, and re-imagine communities. Her portraits contain the “new topographies of urban life,” and function as an alter-narration of what urban space can be, and indeed, may be, in the uncertain future of Detroit.

Other artists featured in Art X Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit are Shiva Ahmadi, Hartmut Austen, Lynne Avadenka, Kristin Beaver, Susan Goethel Campbell, Ed Fraga, Tyree Guyton, Rod Klingelhofer, Gordon Newton, Russ Orlando, Senghor Reid, Michael E. Smith, Gilda Snowden, Cedric Tai, and Sioux Trujillo. The exhibition will be on view April 6-24, 2011.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Corrections from Carlie Dennis, PR Coordinator/Exhibitions Assistant at MOCAD:

There are a few clarifications that I would like to highlight regarding the Art X Detroit exhibition that is currently on view at MOCAD.  First, there are a total of 18 Visual Arts Fellows, 19 if one includes Eminent Artist award recipient Charles McGee.  Neither Charles McGee, nor Tyree Guyton (one of the 18 Visual Arts Fellows) have work in the exhibition on view at MOCAD, as they each have public installations elsewhere in the Midtown neighborhood.  Additionally, it is misleading to say that the exhibition features 19 of the 36 Fellowship recipients, as the other Fellows are in the Literary and Performing arts fields, and are therefore not included in the exhibition but are included in the week’s series of public programs and events.  This statement makes it appear as if the exhibition was curated, when in fact it is an artist-driven showcase and includes all of the Visual Arts Fellows (please click here to read a lengthier description of the context of the exhibition: http://mocadetroit.org/).  Finally, while MOCAD is the venue for this showcase, it is important that proper credit is given to those who produced, organized and funded the exhibition: The Art X Detroit: Kresge Arts Experience is sponsored by The Kresge Foundation, in partnership with the College for Creative Studies, Artserve Michigan, the University Cultural Center Association (UCCA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).”