See Detroit through its ruins

Flaminia Paddeu, 2013

Monde pluriel

This article presents a way out of the crisis for the city of Detroit through art and culture : a public art that allows the inhabitants to reappropriate their city. The field of ruins that Detroit has become since the crisis, frequently exposed, can serve, beyond the observation and the disembodied staging, as a lever for new community projects.

Detroit’s city motto is visionary. Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus. Inscribed in Latin on the city’s flag after the Great Fire of 1805, it means : «  We hope for better times, it will rise from the ashes ". In July 2013, with empty coffers - from a debt of more than $18 billion - Detroit (Michigan, USA) became the largest metropolis in the country to declare bankruptcy.

Since the 1960s, Detroit has suffered a protean crisis and is today the archetype of a city in decline. This decline is above all economic, involving the cessation of growth and a phenomenal loss of employment linked to deindustrialization ; demographic, we speak of a shrinking city since Detroit has gone from 1.8 million inhabitants in 1960 to about 700,000 today ; spatial, since the urban fabric has been de-densified ; ruined houses, wastelands, and other « urban meadows » 1 have proliferated, leading to a situation where a third of the city is wasteland. But one must also consider all the negative effects induced by this decline: the drastic lowering of the tax base, municipal powers without financial resources, budget cuts. This has resulted in the reduction of urban services: garbage collection is notably deficient, public lighting is partial, etc. It is therefore a generalized urban crisis, aggravated by the recent crises: the 2007 subprime crisis; the 2008 financial and economic crisis.

Nicknamed «  murder city  » in the 1990’s, Detroit is today more and more perceived as «  the city of ruins ", a devastated city but susceptible to be aestheticized. Since the end of the 2000s, it has attracted artistic creativity. This is why we propose to explore the counter-intuitive idea that ruin can be perceived as an asset. It is precisely the ruined territories that constitute playgrounds for artists : photographs of ruined buildings ; abandoned houses repainted, ornamented, grimaced ; street art works on abandoned walls ; post-apocalyptic film shooting ; zombie-themed amusement park projects in a dilapidated factory, etc. These are often spontaneous artistic initiatives based on abandoned urban infrastructures and carrying a societal message. The national and international media reception is particularly favorable: the artists whose works are the most diffused are those who anchor their work in the ruin, such as the Heidelberg Project, which represented the United States at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, or the photographs of city ruins in works that have proliferated in recent years: Detroit disassembled (2010) by Andrew Moore ; The Ruins of Detroit (2010) by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre2, etc. In the process of artistic specialization underway among American metropolises, Detroit currently seems to be moving towards a form of public art such as street art or guerilla art based on urban ruins. Thus, one of the most photographed ruined buildings, emblematic of contemporary Detroit, is the Michigan Central Station, built in 1913 and closed since 1988. It has inspired all sorts of proposals to «  embrace the ruins  » including encouraging tourism - which is growing - directed at the city’s ruins. In other words, why not simply develop the ruins of the most beautiful architectural works, integrate them into a tourist route and take advantage of them? In a way, to stage the crisis through the ruins themselves, more or as much as for the aesthetic characters of the building.

But the creativity that is inspired by decline is also that which is exposed to the criticism of ruin porn. The ruin porn, it is this aesthetic fascination, notably photographic, for the ruined buildings of the post-industrial cities in decline, which is expressed particularly in Detroit. In these photographs the human presence is neglected, optional. The problem, in accordance with the analogy made with pornography, is the free and mass distribution via information and communication technologies, and in particular via the Internet. Thus, in addition to the initial photographic production, it is especially the mode of diffusion of these images - often unaccompanied by text or even captions - that poses a problem. It allows for the absence of explanation of the mechanisms that have led to the state of decay ; it increases the risk of obliterating a systemic reflection on the problems ; it masks those who suffer them. In short, the decontextualization made possible by this mode of dissemination obscures the causalities and reinforces the fascination for the beautiful. It also reinforces the tendency to spatial generalization, and the clichés of a city in decline entirely emptied of its inhabitants, without nuance. The debate around ruin porn, which has taken up a lot of space since 2009 in the discourse of the inhabitants, raises the more general question of the function of art in cities in decline, at least for an art that makes decline an object or a support, and which thereby acts out its existence. Must art in this context necessarily have a social function, i.e. be at the service of society and therefore necessarily serve to get out of the crisis ?

Those who denounce ruin porn insist in Detroit on the need for artistic creativity that originates in decline to harbor a social or political message, or to propose useful citizen practices. Assigned to residence, art would thus undergo an assignment to identity, prohibiting henceforth any non engaged creation. This change of paradigm is in progress in certain artistic currents since the Eighties and notably in Detroit. It is an art that is more willingly outside the art market, often without object or marketable work as in the case of street art or guerilla art, but also of participative art or public art3, artistic citizen’s initiative in the public space which emphasizes the identity of districts and the appropriation of public spaces. In these multiple artistic currents, art is conceived as one of the possible links in the reconstruction of the city: hence the emergence in Detroit of increasingly hybrid forms, on the borderline between the work of art and the community project. In a city as stricken as Detroit, it is not enough to be creative with the urban environment; there is a moral imperative for this creativity to be the bearer of innovative anti-crisis solutions or solutions to the crisis.

[#(note 1)] John Gallagher, Reimagining Detroit, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010.

2 Voir

3 Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain. New Genre Public Art, Bay Press, 1995.

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