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The Drive to Downtown: How the University's artists are re-imagining our connection to Detroit

By Sharon Jacobs, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 13, 2011

The area around Detroit’s Zug Island is full of empty buildings in a state of slow collapse, linked by pothole-riddled roads — a ghost town within a living city. Approaching the island, the air pulsates as if a large engine is vibrating beneath it, and a latent wariness pervades.

A man-made testament to industrialization — cut off from the mainland by a shipping canal in 1888 and peppered with blast furnaces and steel mills — Zug Island is closed to the public. But it supplies the backdrop, impetus and title of LSA senior Perry Janes’s film “Zug,” currently in pre-production and scheduled to premiere at the Michigan Theater this spring.

The secrecy surrounding the Rouge River island spawns rumors — some say Zug is a government prison, others a zone of lethal contamination. Spurred by a classmate’s dare, the protagonists of Janes’s film sneak in to find what the writer/director himself has never seen: the real Zug Island.

“What’s cool about Zug is that even people who live in Detroit aren’t really sure what’s going on over there,” Janes said. To him, Zug and the mysteries that surround it form a metaphor for Detroit, a city beset by mythic imaginings.

The central characters in Janes’s “Zug,” Lee and Donovan, live in the outskirts of Detroit. They’ve grown up along the fuzzy line separating “urban” and “suburban,” and struggle with their relationship to the city. It’s a familiar feeling to Janes, who himself grew up skirting central Detroit — and a familiar complexity for the University, a 45-minute drive and yet worlds away.

“There was a part of me that felt like an insider and a part of me that felt like an outsider,” Janes said of his own Detroit upbringing. “I wanted to take ownership of my experiences in Detroit, and then another part of me felt like I couldn’t.”

Founded in Detroit and irrevocably connected, yet celebrated independently for its high standards of research and education, the University too struggles with its role in Detroit. Are we “insiders” or “outsiders”? Do we have an obligation to interrelate? Among the University’s artistic community, there’s no one answer.

It is what it is

Catie Newell, an assistant professor in the Taubman School of Architecture, grew up in the Detroit metropolitan area but didn’t plan to live and work in the middle of the city. Newell’s first artistic foray into Detroit was as one of the “Five Fellows,” a group of Taubman teaching fellows who purchased a house in the NoHam neighborhood in Detroit, just north of Hamtramck.

Each fellow transformed one part of the house in an architecture project. Called “Weatherizing,” Newell’s project — which still stands — creates its own atmosphere, in a sense, from clear glass tubes that puncture the garage wall, connecting the inside and outside.

“I’ve always been very interested in atmosphere, in lightness and darkness, in the idea that our spaces end up making sort of an atmosphere on the interior and shutting out or somehow altering the atmosphere on the exterior,” Newell explained.

Her most recent project, “Salvaged Landscape,” deals with similar themes of inside and outside. It consists of burnt wood from an arsoned house, stuffed back together and nailed into place to create a new space. “Salvaged Landscape” is part of an initiative by the Detroit nonprofit Imagination Station — Newell is the group’s lead architect — to convert a pair of neighboring damaged houses into a public art gallery and a center for technology education.

“I thought that I was actually only going to be (in Detroit) for a year with the fellowship,” Newell said. “I now have no idea how long I’ll be here, but leaving right now seems absolutely ridiculous, and sort of counter to the trajectory of my career.”

Newell is one of many outside artists bringing their work to the city. These newcomers are lured by low housing prices, a burgeoning community of the young, white and creatively minded and the city’s particular vibe — Detroit artists are “doers” rather than “dreamers,” Newell said. But the migrant artists aren’t always welcome, and their interactions and relationship to the city, with its established history, culture and problems, are far from uniform.

Beth Diamond, an associate professor in the Schools of Art & Design and Natural Resources and the Environment, works with the Heidelberg Project — a two-block living multi-multi-multi-media project in the blighted Black Bottom district of Detroit that bursts with found objects from teddy bears to bicycles, as well as paint, posters and anything at all that founder and neighborhood resident Tyree Guyton could imagine to be art. As lead designer for the project’s Cultural Village, Diamond deals with community involvement, helping the Heidelberg sustain and support its neighborhood.

Though this is Diamond’s first design venture in inner-city Detroit, she has worked on similar projects in other locales, like Los Angeles and the mountains of Colorado.

“I would say if you were to track my interest in general, it’s been in terms of digging deep into mostly marginalized cultures,” Diamond said. “My approach is really to collect as much information, as many stories, to really read oral histories, to talk to people, to be ‘out there’ — and then use myself as a filter to get to some of the goals that these groups might not have thought about, or thought were possible.”

Where Newell sees an “available experimenting ground” for her architecture projects in Detroit, Diamond holds a different philosophy, stressing that newcomer artists try to connect to the local communities.

“Detroit is not just a playground for people to come in and to do something,” she said. “I think it’s great for people to come in and experiment in terms of environmental possibilities and building technologies, and get off the grid, and make art, but don’t run over the people who are already there. … There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen.”

Since joining the Heidelberg, Diamond has seen the recent upsurge of tourists and artists in Detroit spark concerns of gentrification on the part of longtime residents. They worry the outside visitors will stay in the city and costs will rise.

“ ‘We’re not going to have any place to live,’ ” Diamond described the mindset.

While Diamond doesn’t think that could happen anytime soon, she sees both fear of gentrification and lack of it as all the more reason to use art as a tool for social empowerment of Detroit residents.

“There’s no ‘magic bullet’ coming back, there’s no new industry, new corporation that’s going to save (Detroit) and ‘make all the white people come back,’ ” Diamond said. “The question is really, ‘How do you create a viable, sustainable and enriching mode of life for the people who are living there?’ ”

To Newell, the community value of her work is in its re-use of previously neglected space.

“I think a lot of people appreciated the fact that we took a building that was completely unable to be used and very dangerous because it was arsoned, and made it into something else,” she said of “Salvaged Landscape.”

Wide-open spaces

Residential College lecturer Lolita Hernandez uses art to reconcile the tension between Detroit’s insiders and outsiders and to connect its people, new and old. A Detroit native and longtime auto industry worker whose published writings center around the Motor City, Hernandez teaches a creative writing course in the University’s Semester in Detroit program. Throughout the course, Hernandez’s students read and discuss Detroit authors, and she brings in local writers to discuss their work and insights into Detroit.

“That gives you a whole different perspective on the city than the facts and the figures and the politics and the problems, and so on and so forth,” Hernandez said. “You have to interact with the city through its creative survivals (in order to understand it).”

And when her students begin to interact with Detroit on a creative level, what do they find? According to Hernandez, an art scene unlike any other.

“Detroit has always, at least in my memory, had a gritty side to it that’s inspired writers,” she said. “I always like to say that we’re always influenced by the auto industry, too. … There’s a kind of routinization that happens when you’re in the plant, and a kind of work ethic, and a kind of groundedness with the real world that Detroit writers have.”

Both Newell and Diamond have also brought their personal interest in Detroit back to the University. Newell taught a studio last year in which her students re-imagined some of the city’s “derelict spaces,” and this year she’s working with a thesis group on an installation in Detroit. Several of Diamond’s graduate students have completed design projects in Detroit — one of her Ph.D. students is currently working to build ten environmental playgrounds in inner-city public schools.

“These aren’t the students that are going to become the golf course community designers,” Diamond said. “There’s kind of a commitment to social justice overall … we’re in a sense obligated to use our gifts and opportunities to help others.”

Diamond relishes the University’s proximity to Detroit as a chance to get involved with a key area of the country. Yet at the same time, the University is an independent educational institution with its own goals and disciplines — some of which have little, if anything, to do with the Motor City — and her feeling of obligation isn’t universal.

“Some of the best friends I’ve made here came from Boston, Massachusetts to study (economics),” Janes said. “To be fair, in their credit, there’s not a lot in Detroit for them, and they didn’t come here for Detroit.”

But Diamond sees Detroit as a sort of beacon for the rest of the world — that we look to Detroit during this time of global recession as a city that’s been through it, is in it and could show the world how to get past the tough days ahead. And the University, a powerhouse in research and education, is obliged to keep up its studies and communications with its multifaceted neighbor.

“To take on the issues of Detroit is really to take leadership of what’s happening in a lot of places,” Diamond said. “To think about and to use the power and the resources of the University to make a difference, not just in this one place, but … to the way people live in cities, period.”

The ties to place

The Work • Detroit gallery was founded with a similar mission: to connect the University with Detroit and the world beyond. Run by the School of Art & Design, Work • Detroit is located in the University’s Detroit Center, the midtown locus for most of its interactions with the city.

“It was very, very vital that right away (Work • Detroit) have a connectivity to the city of Detroit, and then beyond the city of Detroit, beyond even the United States,” said gallery director Steven Schudlich. “We never intended for this space to be some place where we were just going to pump the University of Michigan down people’s throats.”

Rather than focusing exclusively on the city, the University or both, most of Work • Detroit’s exhibits feature pieces from national and international artists that focus on the same theme. The gallery’s current show, “Topophilia,” explores spiritual or emotional connections to geographic place.

“It’s certainly not Detroit-centric, but I think that there are people who could say, ‘Wow, yeah, I have a topophilic responsibility to Belle Isle, because I grew up there,’ ” Schudlich said.

Some Work • Detroit exhibits do highlight the gallery’s University and Detroit connections. A recent show, “The Gathering of the Herd,” included 20 baby elephants constructed by fifth-graders from Detroit’s Marcus Garvey Academy, with help from the School of Art & Design’s Detroit Connections class. Sewn, painted and sometimes draped with Mardi Gras beads or pipe cleaner jewelry, the elephants have personalities and backstories fashioned by their child artists. In October, another Work • Detroit exhibit will feature group projects created by some of Diamond’s students to stand at the Heidelberg.

In a corner of Schudlich’s Work • Detroit office leans a piece he made. Called “Ghost,” it’s a cartoonish drawing of Michigan Central Station. The abandoned train station’s look of majestic decay has made it one of the main subjects of a voyeuristic form of outsider Detroit art that focuses on scenes of industrial destruction and fallen splendor: “ruin porn.”

“I’ve got photographs of my father in (Michigan Central) as a child, getting on trains. I mean, it really was a beautiful building,” Schudlich said. “It’s been allowed to go sallow, and it just stands there and it’s just this constant reminder of the city’s inability or lack of desire to … rectify the visual signals that go out to the world.”

The façade of Schudlich’s station forms a face, which grimaces from the canvas as if wary of its ruinous associations.

Alone against a muted background, “Ghost” contrasts sharply with the assaulting brightness of the Heidelberg Project; the bold, unexpected nature of Newell’s work and the youthful engagement and questioning of self and city that characterize “Zug.”

“Anyone who really wants to can certainly relate to Detroit in a meaningful way — you don’t have to be from there,” Janes said. But he deplores the fact that for many, ruins and ruin porn are the extent of their interactions with the city.

If the University’s Detroit-minded artists have anything in common, it’s that desire to have a meaningful relationship with the city, and to see it for what it is, the good and the bad.

Hernandez spoke of the changing perception city residents hold of Semester in Detroit, and the University’s involvement in Detroit more generally. At first people were wary of the program, she said, but after seeing the students work and connect with the city, they’ve come to respect it.

“I’m like, ‘Come on with it!’ ” Hernandez said, and laughed. “Come on, and meet the people of Detroit, and help break some of these barriers down — you know, come on and interact with us.”


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