Art and Politics

Detroit & the Art of the Commons

Vince Carducci blogs about art and other aspects of culture in Detroit at Motown Review of Art. He has also written for Artforum, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other publications.

On January 3, the online culture news service Flavorwire ran an item on a new book of photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre titled “The Ruins of Detroit.” Marchand and Meffre are French photographers who worked in the city over the last year or so as part of Time magazine’s “Assignment Detroit” in which a cadre of journalists took up local residence and reported on what they discovered. Detroit has long been a poster child for urban disinvestment and Marchand and Meffre discovered plenty of evidence of it.

The genre Marchand and Meffre mine is known locally as “ruin porn” and artists of all media here have been ruminating on the city’s gradual return to the state of nature for decades. (For a couple of the more interesting examples, see the work of Scott Hocking and the blog of painter Stephen Magsig “Postcards from Detroit.”) But while the city”s deliquescence holds an admittedly romantic allure, there is another potentially more fertile tendency emerging that I’ve come to call “the art of the commons.”

The art of commons has sprouted up in spaces created by the erasure of the distinction between public and private as part of the city’s wholesale abandonment over the last forty years — there are upwards of 80,000 vacant buildings and lots in Detroit and the population is less than half the postwar peak of approximately 1.9 million. Artists and other social entrepreneurs are using this preternatural environment to rethink notions of community and the role of art and other aspects of culture.

Perhaps the most well known is The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by Tyree Guyton. Working with his grandfather Sam Mackey, Guyton began cleaning up vacant lots in his neighborhood and used the castoffs collected to create dozens of outdoor art installations. As with other examples of the art of the commons, The Heidelberg Project can’t strictly speaking be considered public art because no sanctioning body has approved it, and indeed municipal officials have demolished parts of it more than once only to see new iterations appear almost immediately.

A more recent example is The Imagination Station, a collaborative project that purchased two adjacent burnt-out houses for $500 a piece with an eye toward creating a media center, living quarters, and an art gallery with a surrounding green space for public use. As the structures are being refurbished, the group has invited artists to create temporary installations from salvaged materials. Imagination Station uses a Kickstarter model as part of its fundraising strategy.

Microfinancing is also part of the relational-art tactics of Detroit Soup. Artist Kate Daughdrill and singer/songwriter Jessica Hernandez host monthly dinners at which artists and other social entrepreneurs present proposals for various community and creative projects. Patrons pay $5 to attend and then vote on which proposal will receive proceeds from the evening. Funded projects have included global-thinking activities like transcontinental video art transmissions to more local-action initiatives like neighborhood pocket parks.

As with any bottom-up endeavor, scale is an issue when it comes to what the future may hold for the art of the commons. For example, Detroit needs a new international bridge crossing to Canada for trade purposes. The estimated cost is US$1.8 billion, which using the Detroit Soup model would require everyone in America to attend dinner and unanimously vote in favor of the project. Whatever its limitations, the art of the commons has a lot to more offer as a practice than the gratification from ogling ruin porn.