the artist-run space tour: part 2 detroit, minneapolis, st paul

rebecca conroy: exploring american artist-run spaces

Heidelberg Project, Detroit

Heidelberg Project, Detroit

Heidelberg Project, Detroit



Detroit is a spectacular story, as large as the infrastructure and the grand architectural gestures that it left behind in the wake of race riots, white tax flight and the free market destruction of the auto industry. Some attribute the demise to those 1967 race riots, the largest and most devastating in US history, when cops busted a blind pig [an unlicensed bar. Eds], disrupting a gathering of black servicemen just returned from Vietnam. Colour is certainly a key narrative in the story of Detroit. But related threads, such as the GFC and continued off-shoring of labour to China, have undeniably contributed to weakening the city; as has the crazy tax base, which has allowed large companies to operate from the city but pay their (minimal) taxes to the predominantly white outer-lying suburbs beyond the 8 mile. Yep, the one that Eminem sings about.

But the past decade has seen the once grand Motown, or Motor City, slowly re-emerge as an urban farming oasis; and many artists are pricking up their ears. The combined allure of cheap houses and the urban-pioneering potential of a place that has been all but abandoned have rendered Detroit a veritable artist beacon. Its arts community also appears to be benefiting from a healthy lack of artist ego, free from the banal prescriptions of an art market. If you can move beyond the ruin porn, there is a bounty of narratives to get your head around. One well known character is Phil Cooley. You couldn’t have written a better script if you tried: young man walks off catwalk in Europe, returns to his native Detroit and, with the help of his real estate agent parents, buys large warehouse to turn into a creative playspace, while running an award-winning restaurant business on the side. The space is called PonyRide, a multi-purpose, artist business incubator space consisting of a dozen different ventures including a hip hop dance studio, a social enterprise and textiles project for homeless people, a letterpress and a recording studio. Kaija Wuolett climbed on board the Cooley wagon as an architect fresh out of grad school. She described the familiar DIY artist-run warehouse fit-out as an organic process of designing and building as they went along, including reusing their own materials and salvaging other materials from abandoned houses. The next lot of plans involves setting up an artist residency program, which they hope to launch in 2013.

In a city with a combined acreage of vacant lots as large as the area of Manhattan, projects connected to housing and buildings have naturally driven a number of artist-led ventures. Design99 is the work of designer and architect duo Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope who “investigate new models of contemporary art and architectural practice”. They have been living and working in the neighbourhood of Hamtramck for the past 10 years, and in 2009 started Power House Productions as a not-for-profit to specifically support their community anchored projects. This year Power House was awarded a lucrative $250,000 ArtPlace grant to continue with three projects, one of which includes the Ride On Skate Park, and another which is a collaboration with the hinterlands, a performance company who relocated to Detroit from Chicago in late 2010. My introduction to Detroit was in fact hearing about the $100 house that another artist couple, Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner, had decided to purchase after encouragement from their friends Gina and Mitch, and which they have since turned into an artist residency space called Dflux.

There’s also the Heidelberg Project, 3600 Heidelberg Street which 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.

minneapolis/st paul

On the west side of the Mid West spectrum, the state of Minnesota and the twin cities of Minneapolis/St Paul are considered progressive by American standards, benefiting from healthy tax contributions to the arts and cultural life. Works Progress is an artist-led public design studio led by collaborative duo Colin Kloecker and Shannai Matteson. Previously they ran a space called the West Bank Social Centre, whose byline, “Unpredictable things are happening,” was largely due to the precariousness of the space and its associated responsive programming. Works Progress sees itself as an artist-led platform, producing publications, workshops and events, such as the very fun live-action arts magazine Salon Saloon and large scale gigs such as the Mississippi Megalops [“big fish”], a boat ride down the Mississippi, which functions like a “floating Chautauqua.” A Chautauqua is a term for the adult education movement that started in 1874 by Lake Chautauqua near New York. It usually featured lectures, plays and musicals, typically in farming or ranching communities.

For these events and others, Works Progress collaborates with many, including the intelligent and delightful Andy Sturdevant. An artist, writer, presenter and arts administrator, Andy runs quirky and deeply informative tours of the city with his collaborator, Sergio Vucci, through Common Room in association with a contemporary art space, the Soap Factory in North Minneapolis. I was fortunate to attend a genuinely fascinating tour of the Mall of America, apparently the largest in the Northern Hemisphere (America would probably say the Universe).

Minneapolis is also home to Red76, an occasional collaboration of associated artists conducted by Samuel Gould. They publish the Journal of Radical Shimming and create responsive works, which function among other things as a framework for ‘public inquiries.’ Previously Red76 were based in Portland Oregon, which has been a formative influence on their methodologies and approaches to public dialogues, social histories, gatherings and collaborative research. Across the river in St Paul is Public Artist in Residence for the city Marcus Young, who describes himself as a behavioural artist. Grace Minnesota is the platform for his collaborative and solo works, one of which, Pacific Avenue, is a city and traffic calming initiative. The project, which he describes as lifelong, involves Marcus walking very slowly along iconic streets, taking three to four hours to complete a seven-minute stroll. For this occasion the rather tall and slender Asian-American dresses in traditional Asian attire and sports a parasol. Minneapolis is also home to 24/7, a car service run by artists and musicians. Similar to another in Brooklyn, this service operates by word of mouth and is designed to provide a flexible income for artists and a taxi service for those working late night gigs or attending events. The car fleet is owned cooperatively and uses a limousine license, which means bookings are essential and drivers are not obliged to pick up anyone from the street. And it’s a very nice ride!

local postscript

Since I returned to Sydney in mid September, Bill+George, our artist-run space, was subjected to an unlawful rent hike, which unfortunately resulted in eviction at the end of October. Pabrik Productions, the incorporated association which produces the ARI, will continue to operate with a number of off-site projects into 2013. As the Sydney real estate bubble continues to expand, Detroit is looking more and more attractive by the hour.

See also part 1 focusing on Chicago and Rebecca Conroy’s Detroit RT Traveller

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 44

© Rebecca Conroy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012