Envisioning Real Utopias in Detroit

Artist Mitch Cope of Design 99 brings sustainable light to the Power House neighborhood. © Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert | Motown Review of Art

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 . . .

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