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“There is clearly something freeing, empowering about the abandonment of Detroit and interesting things are emerging – people taking things into their own hands and creating their own deal.  The freedom of forgotten places with some abandoned buildings that nobody cares about –really interesting and no rules. An invitation to create your own reality,” written by the occupant of the Nathan Myrhvold chair of Zahm Demolition.

Along with the New York Times, we honor our 2010 Annual General Meeting city, Detroit:

To some extent, if you’ve seen one city, you’ve seen them all.

– Campaign speech in Detroit, October 18, 1968, Spiro Agnew

God, you’ve got a job on your hands in Detroit.

– Billy Sunday, during 1916 visit

In Detroit, weather weighs heavily upon everyone. The sky looms large. The horizon shimmers in smoke. Downtown the buildings are imprecise in the haze. Perpetual haze.

– How I Contemplated the World, Joyce Carol Oates

Indeed, Detroit is neither pleasant nor picturesque at all.

– North America, Anthony Trollope

America’s first Third World City

– Devils Night and Other True Tales of Detroi,t Ze’ev Chafets

Downtown looked the same, only emptier. You couldn’t knock down the skyscrapers when the tenants left; so instead boards went over the windows and doors, and the great shells of commerce were put in cold storage.

– Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

The New York Times

  • July 5, 2010

    Art as Security System


    I’ve never spent time in Detroit, but I’ve seen an awful lot of images of the city in the last several years. And those images have been pretty awful, offering a version of the place defined by abandonment and decline. “Ruins porn,” as it’s been called, undermines even hopeful tales of creative renewal. The idea that artists can treat the city like a canvas ends up suggesting that it is a lost cause, an entire metropolitan area written off as raw material for upcycling. The net effect is a part of America depicted as if it exists in some distant reality — somebody else’s problem, nothing to do with us.

    An exception to this caught my eye recently, precisely because it seemed to send a different sort of signal. Mitch Cope, an artist, and Gina Reichert, an architect, collaborate under the name Design 99, and their most recent creations form a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, with the counterintuitive title “Too Much of a Good Thing.” Among the works are sculpture security systems, which are a colorful and creative alternative to the standard plywood sheets used to fortify abandoned houses against intruders. Dubbed Razzle Dazzle devices, each takes the form of a pointy cone that’s jammed into a window or door space and is painted with a colorful pattern that injects a burst of life and energy onto vacant structures that tend to lack both. This isn’t utopian-future optimism but a kind of joyful celebration right in the midst of challenging reality. More to the point: In the lingering hangover of the real estate bust, unoccupied housing has become a much more familiar feature of neighborhoods, urban and suburban, that is hardly limited to Detroit.

    Cope, a Detroit native, allows that Design 99’s approach reflects a weariness with grim portrayals of his city but also points out that as a practical matter the sculpture-security solution came about partly because he was “kind of sick of boarding up houses” in his own neighborhood. He and Reichert own a two-bedroom in East Detroit that they bought for $1,900 a couple of years ago. They rehabbed it, equipped it with solar panels and painted it a festive pastel-stripe pattern. They called this the PowerHouse Project; they and other adventurous types have since acquired and restored several run-down homes and lots nearby. More recently the couple bought a used Bobcat 773 skid-steer loader, which they painted to match the house and renamed the Neighborhood Machine. “Part moving sculpture, part functional tool,” it also tows several delightful custom “project trailers” that aid in tasks like community gardening or clearing debris — and circulate a strong visual presence through the neighborhood.

    As foreclosures rippled across the neighborhood (and the country), empty property attracted a variety of problematic individuals. Over time Cope has become “fascinated by the creativity of criminals” and their ability to suss out the best houses to enter without permission; they seem to have a good eye for the signs or stickers that indicate recent foreclosure, for instance. Cope explains that the name Razzle Dazzle refers to a World War II naval strategy of painting ships in loud patterns that made them harder to gauge with range finders. Similarly the “bizarre” structural sculptures aren’t meant to trick trespassers so much as to confuse them. “Anything too funky or arty, they tend to avoid,” Cope says.

    The most famous Detroit precedent for this strategy — and the one Cope points to as another inspiration — is the artist Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. Dating to 1986, this involved practically encrusting vacant houses with found objects from abandoned lots, creating a surreally vibrant sense of life. I first encountered the Razzle Dazzle security sculptures, interestingly enough, on a blog called Aesthetics of Joy, which described the “joyfully uninviting” tension of a thing that looks lashed together from junk but is deliberately decorative: “It offers the promise that a space will be inhabited by people who will care for it and restore it.”

    Another previous contribution to the semiotics of abandonment, with different aims, was the project Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland.Sick of waiting for follow-through on demolitions delayed for years, an anonymous group painted properties a single, brilliant color from widely available paint lines. “Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange,” its manifesto declared, inviting others to join in. (A number, though not all, of the orange houses were promptly demolished.)

    Design 99’s work echoes the exuberance of the Heidelberg Project, but the Razzle Dazzle devices could easily be replicated elsewhere. Cope muses about making plans available online (they’re a bit more complicated than they look), but the real power of the objects isn’t so much in duplication as in inspiration: here is something new, practical and aesthetically pleasing that could start a conversation about the visual language of unused property — not just in one city but all over the place.