Art and Politics

Envisioning Real Utopias in Detroit

Over the last year and a half, I have looked at the field of cultural production in Detroit through several lenses. As I’ve reflected on things a little more, I have  come to see that these lenses are interconnected. What’s more, they point to a way in which certain art projects in Detroit are perhaps opening up an avenue for thinking about how we might actually go about making that other world the new social movements slogans tell us is possible.

I first have looked at Detroit from the perspective of what I call the art of the commons. This lens reveals a significant (though certainly not exclusive) tendency within contemporary Detroit art that has emerged in those spaces where the distinctions between public and private seems to have dissipated as part of the process of demassification of the city’s core, which has taken place over the last four decades. (As Marx declared, “All that is solid melts into air.”) The resulting abandonment of commercial and residential property, its subsequent neglect, and its reclamation in many quarters by nature has figuratively and in not a few cases quite literally opened up a new field of cultural production. Referring back to the medieval commons (land left open for grazing, farming, and other uses by anyone without requiring individual ownership — the term “commoner,” i.e., one without hereditary title, comes from it), the art of commons trespasses the boundaries of conventional property relations of modern capitalism.

The idea that private property is essentially an ideological construction, something legitimated by hegemonic authority underlies the psychogeographic investigations of the urban landscape undertaken by the Situationist International. This is my  second filter. In particular, the SI concepts of derive (drift), detournement (diversion, derailment), the gift economy, and potlatch provide useful ideal types for understanding how cultural producers in Detroit negotiate the city’s postindustrial condition. (See the post “Beneath the Pavement, the Beach!” for my analysis of Detroit art from a Situationist perspective.)

The work has resulted from these investigations seems to be best embodied by the third lens, Jacques Ranciere‘s notion of aesthetic community. As I have noted in my post, “Aesthetic Community in Detroit,” this conception of community isn’t defined by the network of producers so much as it is by the conscious collective of ideas they are making tangible. There is the sense data of course, that is, the material artifacts, spatial constructions, and interpersonal connections, but more important is the dialectical relationship of the acknowledgment of what is coupled with the vision of what could be. Putting this vision into practice is the lynchpin of what Ranciere identifies as the connection between aesthetics and politics.

How we might look at this confluence of ideas from a sociological perspective can be found in Eric Olin Wright‘s model of social change, the real utopia. As opposed to conventional utopias, which are ideal communities of admittedly unattainable perfection, real utopias, according to Wright, combine “principles and rationales for different emancipatory visions with the analysis of pragmatic problems of institutional design.” Real utopias are ways of envisioning conditions of social and political justice that are at once desirable, viable, and achievable. In keeping with this, real utopias are thus models of emancipatory social transformation, alternative ways of providing for human well being. The aesthetic community of Detroit operates as such a real utopia, in the “niches, spaces, and margins of capitalist society,” in what I have been calling the commons.

There is no better example of this in Detroit than work that has been done over the last five or so years by Design 99, the collaboration of artist Mitch Cope and architect Gina Reichert. Started as a design consulting studio and retail space, Design 99 has evolved into broad-based conduit for exploring models of contemporary art and architectural practice and community engagement. In 2008, Design 99 acquired a foreclosed and abandoned residential structure on Detroit’s northeast side for $1800, which they began to use as a test site for sustainable design and social practice. Project plans called for the structure to be rehabilitated using recycled materials and be completely energy self-sufficient, combining wind and solar technologies for all of its power needs. The project soon attracted attention and support from local residents. Kids started coming by to help paint and plant, and the daily proceedings became a source of conversation for adults.

In 2009, Cope and Reichert formed Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization to extend their work into the nearby neighborhood in a more comprehensive and coordinated way. Founded in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, the organization started as defensive mechanism against the increase in crime and vandalism that plagued the already blighted neighborhood. The “power” in Power House soon came to be more than a descriptor of its energy sources; it came to mean more significantly empowerment of the local community. Power House Productions facilitated the acquisition of eight more houses and three empty lots in the neighborhood. Five of those properties are currently undergoing rehabilitation for use as primary residences. There are also community gardens, neighborhood clean-ups, and neighborhood watch programs in effect. Future plans call for a neighborhood bike shop (Detroit has become a major bike city), a series of artists residencies and workshops, and a skateboard park. The San Francisco-based magazine Juxtapoz also partnered with Power House Productions recently on a multiple-location art-installation project.

Related projects have now followed. The University of Michigan School of Architecture sponsored five graduate fellowships in 2009-2010 to conduct design research, purchasing a house in the neighborhood to allow them to work at full scale. Chicago-based artists Sarah Wagner and Jon Brumit moved in and formed the project DFLUX Research Studio to explore the possibilities of emergent creative cottage industries, famously purchasing a house for $100 in which to conduct their activities. The artist Graem Whyte (himself co-director of another nearby artists’ enterprise Popps Packing) is working on the Squash House project, a site-specific interaction space focusing on play and gardening as the primary mechanisms for community building. Like the Power House, it will be energy self-sufficient and use recycled materials wherever possible.

In his book Envisioning Real Utopias, Wright identifies two interstitial strategies, “revolutionary” and “evolutionary,” both of which are connected to the anarchic idea of politics outside the modern state. The former ultimately proposes a rupture with the political economy of capitalism, the latter a more gradual “withering away” as it were. The interstitial strategies of cultural producers in Detroit strike me as being more of the evolutionary variety. (Indeed, local activist and theorist Grace Lee Boggs notes that the new social movements in Detroit are putting the “evolution” in the “revolution.”) As Wright notes, evolutionary interstitial strategies often emerge in situations where conventional structures are simply not available. It’s essentially a form of social bricolage (in contemporary parlance DIY), which has the potential to become a new order. As Wright further notes, the bourgeois class, and thus modern capitalism, emerged in what Wallerstein terms “the long 16th century” from the interstices of the medieval system. While it may be admittedly utopian to think so at this point, we could be in the process of witnessing a similar transformation today.

This post also appears in Motown Review of Art.