place: detroit

Magazine rack, Detroit Public Library

Magazine rack, Detroit Public Library

Magazine rack, Detroit Public Library

reason for travelling

To meet up with artist-run spaces and initiatives across North America.

d is for detroit

In America it’s very popular to be ‘down on the D.’ You can hear the air being sucked in through the teeth of ordinary folk decrying the fate of a blighted Detroit, a reverse rags-to-riches story. Once the fourth largest city in America, its population has shrunk from about two million at its peak in the 1950s to fewer than 600,000. Derelict, burnt-out, abandoned homes and factories combine with 33,000 vacant lots across the city, giving rise to a new genre in photography called “ruin porn.”

I returned to Detroit after a brief sojourn in 2010. Like many before me, I fell in love with danger, the wildness and the satisfaction of a rust belt being reclaimed by an urban farming movement and all the possibilities that a post apocalyptic playground could ignite. Ranging across the USA on a self-styled rogue tour of artist-run spaces, Detroit in some ways has been the gravitational pull, anchoring the entire trip.

artist run spaces…

Ponyride is a hybrid artist-run space conceived by architect and artist duo Kaija Wuolett and Phil Cooley (Phil also runs Slows Bar BQ by word of mouth, the best bbq restaurant in town). Ponyride’s mission is to use the foreclosure crisis as a catalyst to drive transformation of the area and principally to “provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks” (website). Residents include a letter press and printmaker, Stukenborg Press originally hailing from NYC; a dance studio for Runjit a Detroit form of hiphop dance; “the empowerment plan,” a social entrepreneur textiles and humanitarian project; various digital media outfits; and a sound recording studio Beehive Recording Co. Ponyride even hosts a fencing club.

artworks by swoon,  Powerhouse Productions, Hamtramck neighbourhood, Detroit

artworks by swoon, Powerhouse Productions, Hamtramck neighbourhood, Detroit

artworks by swoon, Powerhouse Productions, Hamtramck neighbourhood, Detroit

Dflux is the home and informal residency program of artists Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner who famously bought a house in 2008 for $100. Jon now works at MOCAD and this house joins several other bustling emerging projects, many of which have been spear-headed by another creative couple Mitch and Gina from Design99 who are known for a range of urban interventions around the city of Hamtramck, under the moniker of Powerhouse Productions.

capital a art…

If you are looking for more on-the-beaten track art experiences there are of course some fine institutions, not just surviving but thriving. Museum of Contemporary Art, fittingly housed in a former auto dealership, is a hub for emerging contemporary practices with large gallery spaces and two very large residency development spaces. While there I met with Detroit based Performance Company the hinterlands, currently in residence. Hinterlands core member Eleni Zaharopoulos also hosts invite-only dinner parties at the Jamison Social Club which describes itself as “a part time public space hosting a variety of social experiments.” Join the mailing list to get invited.

The Detroit Institute of Arts at 5200 Woodward Avenue houses works by Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh and Warhol, but the main attraction is the large Diego Rivera fresco, Detroit Industry, which was commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son when he was director. Also in the Riviera Court are free concerts every Friday at 7 and 8.30pm.

for refreshment…

The place to be on Friday or Saturday nights is D’Mongo’s, or its full name Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy, at 1439 Griswold Street. The cheeky grinned and very friendly Larry D’Mongo presides over this bar located at the back of the hotel he runs with his wife, who also looks after over a very quirky tearoom on the other side of the building (open by appointment only). D’mongo’s serves food, great drinks and packs in some awesome live music. Everyone seems to know everyone at D’Mongo’s.

The first thing to do when you arrive in Detroit is track down a decent flat white. This is a term not understood by many Americans, so it is divine intervention that Astro Coffee on Michigan Ave was opened last year by Australian Jess Hicks and her partner Daisuke Hughes (originally from Detroit). The food is excellent if you are homesick for homemade coconut ice or Anzac biscuits. And…the coffee. My god, it’s good.

play spaces

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

Visiting Dabl’s African Bead Museum is a must for bead and non-bead lovers alike just to hear Dabl’s stories, plus the amazing public art adorning the site. Looking for a more hands-on synthetic experience, there’s hacker space Omni Detroit and also Mt Elliot Maker Space which has open lab days each Thursday from 2pm. The Heidelberg Project, 3600 Heidelberg Street, has just celebrated 25 years. It started as a protest by artist Tyree Guthrie and his father Sam Mackey when they gathered toys and other domestic debris left over from abandoned houses and used them to make large-scale installation works—as big as houses. The site, having grown several blocks in size, is now recognised internationally as an outdoor sculpture park, having survived two attempts by the Mayor’s office to bulldoze it.


Michigan Central Station (1913) is an awesome site, located in the Corktown neighbourhood and created by the architects behind New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. When Amtrak moved out in 1988, it closed down and has sat empty, slowly decaying ever since. Other significant sites include United Artists Theater at 150 Bagley Street; Packyard Auto Plant on East Grand Boulevard and the majestic 1920s Michigan Theater, now the most opulent car park in the world. To sample more tasteful ruin, porn check out Parisian photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

urban farms

The promise of spoils from an emerging green economy is sparking interest in urban farming, alongside efforts by black communities to bring food justice to a city otherwise known as a ‘food desert.’ The confluence of abundant vacant urban land with the global resurgence in growing and eating local produce is starting to yield results. Check out D-Town Farm; Brightmoor; and Earthworks Detroit. To taste some of this goodness, and to see Detroiters on display on Saturdays go to the Eastern Markets, a public market spanning six blocks, operating since 1891. Grab a bike and ride the Dequindre Cut north from the river frontage.

street art, Hamtramck area

street art, Hamtramck area

street art, Hamtramck area


Hostel Detroit, run as a non-profit, is managed by the affable and critically astute Michel, originally from Quebec. He and his family have resided in Detroit for the past 14 years. The hostel is like a big share house and, like a lot of things that make Detroit great, its reputation tends to filter out the 20-year-old gap year travellers. Bikes are available to rent for $10 a day.

upcoming events

Figment – a festival of participatory arts (July 21 -22)
Delectricity – Detroit’s nighttime exhibition of Art and Light (October 5 and 6)
Luminale (September 23-November 23)
Largest American-Arab Festival, (June 15-17)
Detroit Maker Faire (July 28-29)
Tour de Troit September 15, 2012


Ponyride http://ponyride.org/

Slows Bar BQ http://slowsbarbq.com/

Stukenborg Press http://stukenborgpress.com/

Empowerment Plan http://www.empowermentplan.org/p/media.html

Beehive Recording Co. http://beehiverecording.com/

Dflux http://dflux.org/

Powerhouse Productions http://www.powerhouseproject.com/

The Detroit Institute of Arts http://www.dia.org/

Museum of Contemporary Art http://www.mocadetroit.org/

Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy http://cafedmongos.com/

Astro Coffee http://www.astrodetroit.com/

Dabl’s African Bead Museum http://www.mbad.org/

Omni Detroit http://omnicorpdetroit.com/blog/

Mt Elliot Maker Space http://www.mtelliottmakerspace.com/

The Heidelberg Project http://heidelberg.org/

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/

D-Town Farm http://detroitblackfoodsecurity.org/

Brightmoor http://neighborsbuildingbrightmoor.org/

Earthworks Detroit http://www.cskdetroit.org/EWG/

Eastern Markets http://www.detroiteasternmarket.com/

Hostel Detroit http://www.hosteldetroit.com/

Figment – a festival of participatory arts http://detroit.figmentproject.org/

Luminale http://renaissance-detroit.com/

Detroit Maker Faire http://www.makerfairedetroit.com/

Tour de Troit http://www.tour-de-troit.org/


Rebecca Conroy is an interdisciplinary creative and director of Bill+George, an artist run space in Sydney. Rebecca was the Associate Director at Performance Space (2008-2010) and completed her PhD on “Oppositional Performance Practice” in 2006 after an extended period living and working within the Indonesian underground.

A full report on Conroy’s study of US artist-run spaces will appear in RT111.

related articles

look back, move forward, cross borders
rebecca conroy: contemporary indonesian performance
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 5

contentious cut and paste
megan garrett-jones: nighttime: petty theft, performance space
RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 web

17 July 2012