Art and Politics

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

This post continues the analysis begun in Part I of this series, relating art in Detroit to concepts of the Situationist International. Part I provides an introduction and discussion of the concept of psychogeography. Part II discusses the concepts of derive and detournment. The final part, part III, looks at the gift and potlatch.

A second Situationist concept relevant to a discussion of the art of the commons in Detroit is derive, typically rendered in English as “drift,” the practice of meandering, unpredictable explorations of an environment in which its psychogeographic characteristics are exposed. The artist Scott Hocking has been exploring the nether regions of the erstwhile Motor City for more than a decade. In addition to sculptural installations that respond to the physical environment, the artist has recorded his perambulations in a series of documentary photographs organized under topics such as “bad” grafitti, abandoned boats and other vehicles, and present-day locations that were once sites of ancient burial mounds. As Debord notes in “Theory of Derive,” derive isn’t an entirely aimless pursuit, but one driven by an awareness of psychogeographical effects. One of Hocking’s more noteworthy derives is Detroit Love (2007-present).

The project is a miscellany of picturesque images of scenes around the city, moments in place and time that reveal the artist’s emotional connection with the environs. The images are often tinged with irony, capturing residues of the collective memory slipping away. Others show the persistence of the life force amidst the ruins. Among the former are Grand Army of the Republic, a head-on view of a Romanesque structure, built in 1899 originally for the Civil War veterans of the Union Army. Shortly before the last vet died in the early 1940s, the City of Detroit took over management of the building, using it as a social services and community center until closing it permanently in 1982. Another is Blue Bird Inn, which in the 1950s and ’60s was a mainstay of Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene, featuring local artists like Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and the Jones Brothers, Elvin, Thad, and Hank, all of whom would go on to become major figures of the post-bebop era in New York City. Among the latter are images of the city’s wildlife now free to roam the depopulated zones being reclaimed by nature, the process whereby the beach beneath street has been revealed. Each image reflects on the environment in an archeological way not from the perspective of nostalgia. Each represents different aspects of the here and now, for better or worse.

A third concept is detournement, diversion or derailment, which is the practice of reusing existing cultural expressions in a way that gives them new meaning and effect. On a formalist aesthetic level, this can be seen as basically the practice of collage, which since the time of the Cubists has allowed pieces of the broken world to be incorporated into works of art. But from the Situationist point of view, it specifically refers to interventions into the materials, processes, and codes of the culture industry (or as the Situationists would have it, spectacle society) the ephemera of a throwaway civilization. As Debord and Letterist Gil J Wolman write in “A User’s Guide to Detournement” (1956), “The cheapness of [the spectacle’s] products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding,” a statement itself detourned from the description by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto of the role of low-cost commodities in propagating the hegemony of capitalism around the globe.

George Rahme makes work using the remix aesthetic that Situationist detournement anticipated. In the present day, remix has penetrated popular culture primarily through the sampling, looping, and other sonic manipulations of club music, a creative form in which the artist is also proficient, having performed as a musician and DJ in the US and Europe. In his visual production, Rahme similarly assembles found and common materials into scenic mixed-media extravaganzas that look like the hallucinatory reveries of a schizoid Thomas Kincaid (or perhaps it’s just an overdose of X).

Many of Rahme’s works use cheap art reproductions retrieved from thrift shops and other secondhand sources as their foundation. These kitsch substrates are embellished with collaged elements and hand painting. The resulting pastorals can be read as allegories of postindustrial Detroit, a city that as Ground Zero of Fordist modernity was first made and then unmade by the commodity system.

A popular genre much in the news these days is ruin porn, mostly photographic representations of Detroit’s decrepit physical plant that meditate on the half-vacant city as a memento mori of capitalist over-accumulation. The ruin figures prominently in the art of the Romantic period dating back to the late 18th century. And the sublime awe of nature in the process of reclaiming the provinces of culture is a significant impulse within it as well as in the fetishizing of decay in ruin porn with which it is inextricably connected. Rahme seems to take aim directly at these postmodern Romantics with his lowbrow amalgamations of bad taste, using the detritus of consumer culture, and in particular so-called high art that has been run through the grinder of the spectacle’s image processor and rendered banal, to expose its collective id.

The small collage 8,557 (2009) is a direct take off on Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (1818), one of the most famous images of German Romanticism. Rahme’s version is constructed on top of a poster of the Alps that features the names of various mountain peaks and their elevations. The title happens to be the elevation of the Scheien Pass near Davos in Switzerland. Besides being a popular ski resort, it’s also the site of the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum, one of the prime mechanisms through which what London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair terms the transnational capitalist class quite literally rules the world. Numeric indices are the blunt measuring stick by which capitalism rationalizes all things. And it was Fordism’s failure to “make the numbers” that inevitably led to Detroit’s decline in the face of globalization.

Below: Kristen Gallerneaux’s recording of Scott Hocking’s practice of derive.

Get In My Car & Drive: Nowhere in Detroit (Episode 1) from Kristen Gallerneaux on Vimeo.

Coming next part III: the gift and potlatch in the art of the commons.