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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.