Aesthetic Community in Detroit
In the Huffington Post, author and community organizer Yusef Bunchy Shakur and co-author Jenny Lee write: “Detroit is modeling life after capitalism.” One of the ways this is happening is through the work of artists who are helping to envision what that life might look like. These artists are constructing what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls an “aesthetic community.”
The aesthetic community of Detroit is more than simply a collection of artists and other creative types working in the same location. It’s a community of sense, as Ranciere expresses it, which operates on three levels.
The three senses of aesthetic community
The first level of aesthetic community is a certain combination of sense data — materials, forms, spaces, etc. — that constitute the work. In particular in Detroit, this often consists of using recycled castoff materials, adopting makeshift techniques for fashioning them into artistic expressions, and doing so in locations that have been abandoned or otherwise marked by neglect. The notion of aesthetic community at this level comprises what Ranciere terms a “regime of conjunction,” that is, a bringing together of disparate elements into a meaningful whole.
The second level opens up a tension between this regime of conjunction and what Ranciere terms the “regime of disjunction.” The latter can be understood as the way the work points to that which is absent, specifically in the case of Detroit the sense of community dislocated as a result of the ravages of capitalism, the lack that registers the social, economic, and political deracination whose residue is emphatically apparent in the postindustrial wasteland of Detroit.
This aspect of aesthetic community is not the same as what another French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, terms the “inoperative community,” the longing for the original idea of community that was lost or broken in the transition to modernity, the dialectic of what sociologists term Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. That’s about Romantic nostalgia, the province essentially of so-called “ruin porn.” Instead, it’s what enables the third level of aesthetic community to come into play.
The third level of aesthetic community intertwines the “being together” of the first level with the “being apart” of the second level to produce a new sense of community, in the present and in its potentiality. It’s a recognition of what is, coupled with a prospect of what may be to come. It’s a sensibility, according Ranciere, which aesthetics shares with politics.
Some aspects of aesthetic community in Detroit
The Heidelberg Project
Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project has been extensively written about. Its significance as an expression of aesthetic community has been less remarked upon. As is well known, Guyton’s project reclaims a largely abandoned two-block area in a neighborhood on the city’s east side. Its primary materials are castoffs the artist typically retrieves from around the city. One of the elements, the polka dot, festoons buildings and the street, conjoining elements of a broken urban environment into an aesthetic whole. Other aspects point to the second level of Ranciere’s concept, for example, the flat cutout images of New York taxis spread around the project, serving the needs of a public that isn’t there but could be if the environment were different.
Over the 25 years of its existence, the Heidelberg Project has moved from being simply an art environment to a community activity and education space. Kids shoot hoops at the basketball net set up in the center of the street. A regular schedule of events is maintained, bringing people together under a multicultural umbrella. The 2011 Summer Solstice celebration featured demonstrations of Brazilian capoeria, music, dancing, and food. A gathering later in the summer featured a spoken-word performance event and concert of funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The Heidelberg Project also has a library and recently began an endeavor to promote local ecological and social sustainability.
The City of Detroit government has had an ambivalent relationship with the Heidelberg Project over the last 25 years, including bulldozing over sections of it on two occasions, only to see it rebuilt and expanded each time.These police actions and their ultimate futility point to a political aspect of the Heidelberg Project. Again, Ranciere provides insight into the discussion.
For Ranciere, “the essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space.” Its essence, he writes in “Ten Theses on Politics,” is to make manifest the disjuncture between the state as a site of power and politics as a field of action — a field Ranciere calls “democracy,” the space created of, by, and for the rule of the people and their claim to legitimacy, regardless of station. And so it is that the politics of aesthetic community are on view on Heidelberg Street.
Another example is the Detroit Soup project founded by artist Kate Daughdrill and musician Jessica Hernandez. Detroit Soup is a monthly dinner-fundraiser for creative projects happening in Detroit. It takes place in a donated loft above a bakery in Mexicantown on the city’s southwest side. Attendees make a $5 contribution and share a meal made by volunteers. Artists and other individuals present creative projects, which are then voted on by the group. The proposal with the most votes gets the evening’s proceeds. Grantees usually return at a later date to present the results of their completed projects. The funding amounts are small, but the process entirely grassroots.
During the course of the meeting, other activities take place. The most important is bringing various creative communities into contact with one another, a process of transforming aesthetic community as an idea into a democratic community in fact. What’s more, similar fundraising initiatives have spread throughout the city, providing additional nodes in the social network and strengthening the mesh of interrelationships among cultural producers in the city.
A group that takes a somewhat different tack is Design 99, the collaborative team of architect Gina Reichert and artist Mitch Cope. Design 99 was originally founded in 2007 as a design studio in a storefront now occupied by the community art space Public Pool. In 2008, the team began developing The Power House, which takes a modest wood-frame former drug house, redeemed from bank foreclosure for $1900, as the site for re-envisioning what was once a working-class neighborhood that in recent years had been devastated by disinvestment. The designation “Power House” has two connotations: as an experiment in energy self-sufficiency through its use of sustainable solar and wind technology, and as a dream space of aesthetic community, specifically, as a model for democratic action in Ranciere’s sense.
Not long after renovations began, neighborhood residents began to gather around, some taking part in the work and others simply watching and discussing the proceedings. Growing awareness of the project locally and internationally enabled the team to acquire additional properties in the neighborhood, and in 2009, Reichert and Cope founded Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to managing a growing number of projects in the area. These include five houses currently undergoing renovations, several community gardens, back alley garbage pickup, and neighborhood watch programs. Future plans call for the development of formalized artist’s residencies, urban planning workshops, and facilities for various forms of cultural production.
Clearing a Path to the Future: Garbage Totem no. 1, 2011, by Design 99 envisions back alley clean-up as art (below).
Projects are also being undertaken in other parts of the city, one such being Talking Fence in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood on the city’s northwest side, funded by Community + Public Art Detroit (CPAD), a program administered by College for Creative Studies (CCS). The 150-foot long structure runs around a residential street corner culminating in an archway that opens to a spiral seating area. The project plan is inspired by the “three sisters” method of agriculture used by Native Americans in which squash, beans, and maize are planted alongside one another. (The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen to nourish the other two plants, and the squash spreads on the ground to suppress weed growth and serve as “living mulch.”) Talking Fence creates a space for collecting and telling stories, providing a venue for neighborhood elders to pass down local history to the younger generation. The construction was undertaken as a youth education project in collaboration with a teacher and students at a nearby high school. The project plan factored community participation as essential to its realization. This expression of aesthetic community is an example of the art of the common, that is, art that exists in its own space between the “certified” public sphere (what Ranciere understands as the dominion of the state) and the officially occluded private sphere. It constitutes an opening for community expression at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.
One of the newest projects in the city is the Edible Hut by Mira Burack and Kate Daughdrill, funded by a $40,000 CPAD grant. Edible Hut combines elements of an outdoor sculpture, a neighborhood shelter, and a garden. It is being built by a team of artists, architects, community members, youth from the neighborhood, and teachers and students from the Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered K-8 learning community, and CCS. The structure is to be constructed in the Osborn neighborhood in northeast Detroit. Like Talking Fence, Edible Hut is intended to create a space of identity and inclusion, things Ranciere has identified as political aspects of aesthetic community. Moreover, it is a place for physical and spiritual sustenance beyond the pale of market exchange.
Envisioning a life after capital
Shakur and Lee’s HuffPost Detroit blog entry is an open letter to the Occupy movement. “Detroit has moved beyond protest,” they write. It has done so, they go on to say:
Because we have survived the most thorough divestment of capital that any major U.S. city has ever seen; because we have survived “white flight” and “middle class flight,” state-takeovers, corruption and the dismantling of our public institutions; because the people who remained in Detroit are resilient and ingenious, Detroiters have redefined what “revolution” looks like.
This revolution is still in progress and certainly far from being won; it’s a revolution that is both aesthetic and political. Its spirit is embedded in the city’s motto adopted in the wake of the Great Fire of 1805, as if prefiguring Ranciere by some two centuries, “Speribus meliora; resurget cinerabus” — “We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes.”
A version of this post appeared in Motown Review of Art.