Art and Politics

Beneath the Pavement, the Beach! — Detroit Art from a Situationist Perspective, Part I

In reading and reviewing McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, I couldn’t help but think about the practice of art in the city of Detroit. Wark’s title refers to the Situationist idea of deconstructing the process by which nature has come to be overwritten by culture particularly in the urban environment. This in part entails the recognition that:

“The conceit of private property is that it is something fixed, eternal. Once it comes into existence it remains, passed in an unbroken chain of ownership from one title-holder to the next. Yet in the course of time whole cities really do disappear. We live among the ruins. We later cities know that cities are mortal.” (29, emphasis added)

In the case of Detroit “the course of time” has progressed rather quickly, basically with the onset of post-Fordism in the early 1970s, though some commentaries rightly see the seeds as having been planted in the suburbanization of the region that began soon after the Second World War. This reversal of the conceit of private property provides the basis for what I have called the art of the commons, art that is neither public nor private but that exists in a space in between. And many of the practices that comprise this work have something in common with what Wark tells us about the Situationists. In this post, I will reflect on the Situationist understanding of  psychogeography as it appears in Detroit art work. Part II will similarly examine derive and detounement and part III will analyze the gift and potlatch.

In the “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” the Situationist theorist Guy Debord writes that psychogeography concerns the study of “specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals.” One of the more well-recognized mappings of the ghost world of Detroit is the one undertaken by Tyree Guyton on the city’s East Side in the form of the Heidelberg Project. Guyton objectively and subjectively marks out the territory of his experience over the years of the neighborhood where he grew up.

The objective might be best represented in the form of the polka dot, which Guyton uses to delineate physical space and to unite the public sphere of the street with the private domain of homes long since abandoned.

An example of the subjective is Soles of the Most High, a tree clad with scrap wood on its trunk and festooned with shoes hanging from its crown.

“Shoe trees” have a number of interpretations, from simply banal evidence of practical jokers tossing footwear out of their owners’ reach, to more sinister explanations of gangland territory marking rituals to folklore legends of serial killers using them as trophy displays of their victims. In Guyton’s case the tree takes its inspiration from the artist’s grandfather, Sam Mackey, a descendent of slaves who helped start the Heidelberg Project in 1986 and who had told Guyton of lynching trees from his youth in the rural South where all that passersby could see were the soles of the victims’ shoes dangling overhead. (For more on the visual representation of lynching in Guyton and other contemporary art, see chapter 6 of Dora Apel’s Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob, Rutgers, 2004, which has a detail of Soles of the Most High on its cover.)

Embedded within this apparition is the psychogeographical trace of the exodus that took African Americans from sharecropping peonage in the Jim Crow South to “free” wage-labor in the factories of the Promised Land in the North, a redemption that turned out to be only too short-lived as the sense of terroir established in neighborhoods such as Heidelberg disintegrated under post-Fordist deindustrialization and urban disinvestment, which has ironically opened up vast tracts of abandoned land in Detroit that are fertile grounds for the practice of the art of the commons.

Coming next, part II: Derive and Detournement in the art of the commons.