Critics Page

Detroit and the Art of Protest

Bright orange houses, totemic garbage mounds, ice-encased houses, and sculptures of lost neighborhoods—these are some of the sites of protest or resistance of Detroit artists today. Abandoned houses painted orange suddenly appeared along some of the city’s major freeways in 2006, calling blaring attention to their dereliction. The anonymous artists who were behind Object Orange painted the structurally unsafe houses in a series of guerilla actions, using the Disney color Tiggerific Orange. Painting only the side facing the highway, their goal was to make the houses visible to middle-class commuters who were rushing home from the city to the northern white suburbs, who could otherwise easily ignore the dilapidated homes already marked for demolition but left standing by the city. Object Orange signals the story of urban decline that is told not only through shuttered factories, shops, and civic architecture, but also through the thousands of ordinary vacant homes that are mostly modest wooden structures. These ruins are generally invisible because they are not memorialized in any way and tend to be located in poor and minority neighborhoods. Of the first 11 houses painted orange, four were almost immediately demolished, and more have been demolished since. The city, however, viewed the project as criminal vandalism and claimed the demolitions were coincidental.

In Ice House Detroit, artist Gregory Holm and architect Matthew Radune spent several weeks in the dead of winter pouring tons of gallons of water over an abandoned house with fire hoses and letting it freeze in layers. Photos convey a haunting sense of a future that is already past, the ice house becoming an allegory of the economic crisis in which millions were frozen out of their homes in the mortgage foreclosure crisis. By drawing on the aesthetic of what may be called the deindustrial sublime to create an object of uncanny beauty, Ice House Detroit both conjures and domesticates the terror of homelessness. But the artists’ fee paid to the Michigan Land Bank for use of the house went toward the purchase and rehabilitation of another property owned by the land bank, into which a single mother and her children moved.

Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse, a series of seven black-and-white photographs by artist Mitch Cope, evokes disrupted lives by documenting the piles of rubbish that litter the neighborhood in Hamtramck where Cope lives. The images transform the refuse by the addition of totems that loom over the chaotic heaps of broken furniture and the debris of emptied homes. These are fantastical apparitions that hover above the wreckage like protective spirits or guardians of memory. Some of the garbage piles were put out for bulk pickup day but were left uncollected by the city due to a blizzard, growing larger as they waited for the next bulk pickup day three months later, the last free pickup before the city garbage services were privatized.

In a final example, Brooklyn-based Detroit native Sandra Osip also addresses effects of urban economic decline. On a return visit to Detroit, Osip was shocked to find her neighborhood and childhood home razed and surrounded by empty lots strewn with garbage; she was equally appalled to learn that at least a dozen bodies had been found in the previous 12 months in this neglected part of the city on Detroit’s east side. Using photos of burned out houses surrounding her former high school and places she had lived, her six-foot sculpture “Beautiful Homes and Gardens,” from the series Broken Dreams, evokes the destruction of whole neighborhoods. Like the other three works, it signals a ruined present still resonant with the echoes of lived experience, a present destroyed by the continuing processes of neoliberal disinvestment and racialized discrimination.


Dora Apel

DORA APEL’s most recent book is Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015). She also has written War Culture and the Contest of Images; Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob; Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing; and Lynching Photographs, co-authored with Shawn Michelle Smith. She is Professor and W. Hawkins Ferry Endowed Chair in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Wayne State University in Detroit.


JUNE 2015

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