Thursday, October 20, 2011

Detroit: now with people in it!

Gheorghina, Chadsey High School, Detroit, Dawoud Bey, 2003, chromogenic print. Detroit Institute of Arts
(originally published 10/20/11 in Bad At Sports)

For decades, Detroit has performed a facile and impoverished symbolic role in our regional and national consciousness. You know what the city represents almost by instinct: abandonment, danger, the slow yet violent death of once-mighty American industry — the death, even, of the American city.

The proliferation of this looming, limiting symbolism has been accelerated, in the last decade, by advances in digital photography technology and online connectedness, which have made exhibiting photographers of us all. Amateurs and professionals alike come from all over to photograph Detroit’s ruins (and then share them with their social networks). These crumbling structures are astonishing, when you’re not used to them (and even, sometimes, when you are). They’re hulking, haunting, impossible, darkly transcendent. Photographed, they have real power as memento mori. A “unique glimpse into the sublime, where time seems suspended and the glory of a civilization now past has taken hold of the onlooker” motivates the taking of such pictures, according to Detroit Institute of Arts photography curator Nancy Barr.

But, of course, these photos are contentious. They typify the “predatory side of photography” that Susan Sontag wrote about in 1977 in On Photography. (“The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.”) They’re touristy, superficial, embarrassing; more to the point, they nakedly dramatize the power dynamics that sustain a society in which some people are born and live among ruins and others can swoop in, photograph them, and return to their lives of material comfort.

And they keep us cornered, these photos. “This is what you are,” they say blandly to a city that is tired of getting shit on by hostile outsiders. They come to define us, to those who don’t know our warmth and industriousness.

But things are changing. Thanks in part to the same connecting technologies and tendencies that encourage the proliferation of ruin porn, new and expanding narratives about Detroit are being successfully disseminated alongside the old ones. Yes, we’re post-industrial; yes, we’re poverty-stricken; yes, we’ve got all these decrepit buildings to deal with; yes, yes, yes.

But! There are people here. All kinds of people, in fact. People who are struggling, yes, but also people who are choosing to live differently. People who’ve lived here all their lives and people who come from far away. People who are finding new ways to support one another. They’re designing and creating viable public spaces, they’re farming the land, they’re learning to live in ways that are not inherently hierarchical, they’re making art out of the rubble. Is all this new? No. But for the first time in a long time, it’s news. In a surprising turn, the people in this city are starting to compete with violent death and empty buildings as objects of outsider interest.

Detroit Revealed, the new exhibition at the DIA that showcases ten years of Detroit photography by eight different photographers (four local, four not), reflects Detroit-as-symbol in the expected ways (“predictable,” the exhibition text readily admits), but also in some of these newly-understood ways. It’s notable because it reflects a tentative understanding of Detroit’s real urban complexity, a complexity that has lately eluded it in the popular consciousness.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Communicating with the city itself: Minimaforms brings "Memory Cloud" to Detroit

Photo by Jiinyi Hwang
(originally published 9/29/11 in Bad At Sports)

For three successive nights starting Friday, September 30, the experimental architecture and design studio Minimaforms will install Memory Cloud: Detroit in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The interactive piece (a “transient light environment,” in the words of its creators) will consist simply of manufactured fog and words written with light. Those words, which will be projected onto the rolling fog as it fills the nighttime sky, will be yours, if there’s anything in particular you’ve been meaning to say to Detroit.

This isn’t the first Memory Cloud. Minimaforms (which consists of brothers Theodore and Stephen Spyropoulos) originally installed the piece in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2008. Participants contributed text messages about whatever they liked, then watched as those messages were projected onto the fog, growing, shimmering, multiplying, and passing over their heads before finally disappearing. There were more than 1,500 messages submitted over three nights. Together, they formed a dreamy, evanescent pastiche of loves notes, cultural references, confessions, inside jokes, questions, pick-up lines, philosophical musings, calls to political action, reactions to participating in the piece, and much else. All of the messages from the three nights are archived here. They make for fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) reading. Some of my favorites include:
this makes me feel sexy
the future is here
Please will someone give me a job?!
do I dare disturb the universe?
I lost my knickers
Wigs are fun! you should try one
I iz in ur smoke makin ur arts
The Detroit version of Memory Cloud, while formally similar to the London performance, will have a tighter focus. In the weeks leading up to it, Detroiters were invited to submit “memories, stories, and personal aspirations for the city of Detroit” in 150 characters or less via the website Voice of Detroit. You’ll still be able to submit text messages at the event, but the content is likewise intended to be Detroit-centric, forming an “evolving diary,” a multifaceted exploration of a city created out of hundreds of subjective impressions.

Minimaforms creates temporary environments that are rooted in participation, communication, urbanism, and contemporary technology. With Memory Cloud, they give elegant, transient physical form to the digital spaces we’ve already become so used to inhabiting this century, spaces made from endless streams of others’ thoughts. But by giving us an event, an opportunity to physically exist in such a space together, they simultaneously reaffirm our ancient connections to place, and to one another.

The brothers were kind enough to answer a few questions over email about their work andMemory Cloud: Detroit. Because their practice tests the limits of what architecture and design can be, I thought I’d start with the basics.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Moments of transition: a conversation with Cedric Tai

"Inset" by Cedric Tai, 2010, stained oak and spray paint on acrylic plastic
(originally published 8/19/11 in Bad At Sports)

Cedric Tai really came to Detroit’s attention with his Brixel murals, dazzling and colorful pieces of public art funded by a Kresge Arts Fellowship and created, with active community participation, around Midtown Detroit. The murals are meant (in part) to draw attention to the beautiful brickwork that’s all over the city. (Brixel = brick + pixel, and the pieces definitely have a distinctly pixelated look; when I see them, I can’t help but think, delightedly, of original Nintendo game landscapes.) Creating each mural involves generating a pattern with a specialized computer program, then organizing a team of volunteers to execute it by painting individual bricks according to the pattern. They’re sort of like large-scale paint-by-numbers projects, offering participants who aren’t visual artists the valuable sense of what it feels like to produce public art. (Just don’t call it street art. Click here for an earlier interview I did with Cedric where he explains why he’s uncomfortable using that term to describe his Brixel work.)

But there’s much more to Cedric’s art than Brixels. He concentrated in painting (and art education) at Michigan State University, where he earned his BFA in 2007. His paintings, mostly executed on acrylic plastic, allow for considerably more fluidity than his Brixel work. Some of them evoke landscapes, others aerial perspectives of natural and man-made systems, and others little more than the materials and gestures used to create them. What unites them, to my eye, is a sense of transformation (nearly each piece seems to represent a moment of transition, arrested) and collision (there are usually several distinct visual languages competing for space on the canvas at once).

Cedric’s about to leave Detroit for Glasgow, where he’ll be pursuing an MFA at the Glasgow School of Art (and most likely branching out into different media). We talked over email about his work, bartering in Detroit, art infrastructure and community, toxic materials, happiness, and his impending move.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"In Bloom" at the Susanne Hilberry gallery

(originally published 7/29/11 in KnightBlog)

You’ll find no flowers when you visit the Susanne Hilberry Gallery to see “In Bloom,” the four-person show on view there until August 6. Not real ones, anyway. There’s a Styrofoam box full of artificial flowers, watered fruitlessly by a half-hearted burble. And there’s an abundant sense of growing and blooming in much of the rest of the work. But almost none of it is natural growth; the work resolutely inhabits the realm of the artificial, only peeking out to see the natural world from inside material culture. Comprised largely of detritus from the consumerist machine that has come to constitute our environment, the work can only ever refer to nature, though natural ghosts insistently haunt the periphery.

Art referring to nature, of course, is nothing new. What is relatively new, the work suggests, is how very natural the artificial has become. In a 2008 reviewof work by Ivin Ballen, an artist in the show whose pieces include paintedtrompe l’oeil representations of duct tape and plastic bags, Lynn Crawfordmakes a surprising comparison to the mid-19th century landscapes of theHudson River School. But it makes sense; those artists represented the natural environment as they experienced it. For Ballen, today, duct tape and garbage bags are the environment.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Garage dance in Detroit: an interview with MGM Grand's Biba Bell

Photo by Michel Francois Soucisse
(originally published 7/14/11 in Bad At Sports)

I saw Modern Garage Movement (also known as MGM Grand) perform in Detroit for the first time in 2009. It was sheer luck, actually, since I’d never heard of them and had only learned about the performance from an overheard conversation at a cafe. Unsure what to expect, I showed up to a warehouse in Southwest Detroit, then in use as artist studios and a performance space by the 555 Gallery, and was directed to a huge, open room several floors up. It was the kind of space that you find scattered throughout Detroit: a gorgeous, creaking, post-industrial vastness, a bit decrepit but steadfastly built to last.

The atmosphere was disarmingly informal. Theatre chairs were arranged here and there, and the company’s three dancers chatted casually with the fifteen or twenty gradually arriving audience members. The dance began with just one dancer, lying on the floor. She spent several minutes there, gasping, heaving her torso, arching her back, and flopping her limbs heavily, dramatizing a profoundly disquieting sense of body horror. From my perspective, I couldn’t see her face, which reduced her form to something anonymous and animal.

The dance, Royce, evolved into a work of purposeful purposelessness, with the dancers at times stalking furiously around the confines of the space. Having been created over the course of a few weeks as a site-specific work, it also became a dance about the space. The dancers moved around the room’s numerous pillars in a way that emphasized the pillars as much as it did the dancers. During one especially breathtaking moment, all of the lights were turned off except those illuminating a single corner of the room. The dancing continued, now as a supporting, exclusively auditory phenomenon. (The dance had no recorded soundtrack, only the dancers’ footfalls and breathing, and the regular, rhythmic splash of passing cars driving through puddles.)

Royce was playful, too; at one point, the dancers offered the audience beer and bags of chips. At another, they started rolling objects in our direction: balls, industrial spools, tires. This level of audience acknowledgment and involvement is essential to MGM Grand’s work. Also essential is an experiential investigation of space, an interest in taking dances on the road and letting them change along the way, and a tendency to perform in unexpected places.

The company will be bringing its singular performance style to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit this Friday, July 15. They’re dancing Nut, a 2010 piece informed, in part, by the classic Motown female trio (and featuring Motown music, modified by MGM collaborator R. McNeill). Nut was conceived at MIT, developed in Detroit, and premiered in New York at The Kitchen. After Friday’s performance, it will continue to tour on the east and west coasts.

MGM Grand originated in San Francisco and its three choreographer-dancers, Biba Bell, Jmy Leary, and Piage Martin, live across the country. Bell currently lives in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, and I interviewed her after seeing a recent Detroit performanceshe choreographed as Urisov, a moniker used to identify her solo work, apart from MGM Grand. (Urisov is pronounced your eyes of, and is a reference to Part IV of Hymmnn, the concluding section of Allen Ginsberg’s long poem Kaddish).

That performance was at the 2:1 Gallery, a temporary sound art space in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. It included a dance (InGrain) during part of which the audience sat in the basement and listened to the dancers performing upstairs, as well as a sound piece (Four Corners) by Gregory Holm and Jeffrey Williams that included a vibrating tambura, a droning, electronically modified piano, and two singers vocalizing wordlessly into the rooms’ corners. I asked Bell about her distinct creative personae, her influences, and the approach MGM Grand takes toward making and performing dances.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where we end and nature begins

(Originally published 7/8/11 in KnightBlog)

There’s just one day left to view “Prime Candidates,” the fascinating show currently up at 2739 Edwin in Hamtramck. Curator and gallery owner Steve Panton considers the work on display part of Detroit’s “dirtgeist,” a movement he associates with trash (plastic bags, especially) and nature. In it, participating local artists Scotty Slade and Andrew Thompson, as well as the Canadian duo Duke and Battersby, all pose intriguing questions about the points of intersection between human domesticity and the natural world.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A different kind of theme park

(originally published 7/5/11 in KnightBlog)

I was glad I took time this Independence Day to explore Hamtramck Disneyland. That's the informal name of a legendary folk art installation that covers a residential backyard and two small garages, reaching, improbably, at least two stories into the air. What better way to celebrate the holiday than a stop in Michigan’s most ethnically diverse city, a tiny enclave of Detroit, to see a work of crowded, kitschy Americana made by a retired Detroit autoworker originally from Ukraine? Turns out Hamtramck Disneyland is a lot more than crowded and kitschy (though it is, gloriously, both of those things); it’s also a remarkable technical achievement and a compelling and joyful exploration of the US and all its messy contradictions.

Dmytro Szylak, who is now in his 90s, began the piece in 1992 and continues to add to it. It’s a dense but carefully arranged assemblage of windmills, toys, fans, propellers, art and religious iconography from various cultures, carved figures, model rockets, lawn ornaments, a massive model airplane, a couple carousels and several Santa Clauses (including one that’s gleefully riding in a helicopter). It has many moving parts. It’s crazy and overwhelming, described as both “Disneyland on acid” and “the physical embodiment of happiness” onYelp. It’s also an intricate structure and a remarkable feat of engineering (by which I mean it doesn’t fall down, even though it looks like it should).

Friday, July 1, 2011

Soul of a city

(originally published 7/1/11 in KnightBlog)

Spending time with Olayame Dabls’ public art is in some ways essential to understanding Detroit’s recent history. In his hands, the rusted, discarded and broken bones of industry cohere into beautiful, monumental forms that address the racism, deindustrialization and abandonment that have wreaked such havoc on the city and its residents. Colored (and somehow safeguarded) by vibrant visions from Africa, the work, which can be found on adjacent plots of land overlooking Interstate 96 on the city’s near west side, expresses difficult truths, but is also a wonder and joy to behold.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An evening of sound and movement at 2:1

Photo by Michel Francois Soucisse
(originally published 6/28/11 in KnightBlog)

We could hear the powerful, rhythmic sound of Biba Bell’s six-inch heels striking the floor above our heads before the dance even started. Around 50 people (a good turnout for an avant-garde dance and sound art performance on a Sunday night in Detroit) were all seated in the basement of the 2:1 Gallery, the new sound art laboratory in Eastern Market. People chatted, took pictures and wondered about the dense arrangement of folding chairs; where, exactly, were the dancers supposed to perform? Above us, over the din, the purposeful sound of heels stalking the gallery space from one end to the other signaled an answer. Bell, a choreographer and dancer performing under the moniker Urisov, descended the stairs and announced the performance was about to start. With that, the lights were dimmed and "InGrain" began — upstairs and out of sight.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Coming "Home"

(originally published 7/27/11 in KnightBlog)

The first piece you’ll see when you check out “Homeland,” the show on view at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art until August 20, is Jother Woods’ astonishing, 52-foot long installation “Plantation House.” The dense miniature world, full of buildings, vehicles, avenues and landscaping constructed mostly from found materials, is a testament to the imagination and talent of its warm, inviting 82-year old creator, who was there in shirt and tie when I visited the gallery.

Woods explained that the piece represents a fictional world based on his personal history and the future he imagined for himself as a young man. The story begins as his life did, in rural Louisiana in 1929, where he shared a single room in a crowded house with four brothers. Woods eventually moved to Detroit and became a sign painter; his imagined self met a different fate, building a trucking empire and the resplendent, titular house that is the centerpiece of the installation.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Island beautiful: art on Detroit's Belle Isle

(originally published 6/21/11 in KnightBlog)

Belle Isle is spectacular. The Detroit island park is home to dense woods, weeping willow-lined lakes, vast fields, dramatic views of the skyline and passing freighters, and some truly inspired architecture. The contemplative tranquility of its natural and man-made beauty also makes it a perfect place to encounter art, as the folks at Access Arts Detroit know. They’ve hosted outdoor art exhibitions on the island for the past four summers. The fifth just opened last Saturday and will only be on view until June 24. I urge you to print a map, head to the island for a few hours, and go looking for art. You’ll find some remarkable work, and, along the way, you’ll have the singular pleasure of spending time on Belle Isle, a place metro-Detroiters are lucky to call our own.

It’s an ambitious show, featuring work by more than 15 artists and stretching from one end of the 1.5 square mile island to the other. A few pieces are well off the beaten path. (Map in hand, I felt like an explorer hunting for treasure as I worked my way around the island.) I recommend seeing it by bike if you can (Belle Isle's streets are some of the few in the city with bike lanes), but a car will work and walking will, too, if you have plenty of time to spare. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Making brixels with Cedric Tai

(originally published 6/10/11 in KnightBlog)

Cedric Tai doesn't think Detroit is a blank canvas. (That controversial metaphor gets tossed around quite a bit these days by people who champion the city’s remarkable creative potential at the expense of its complex present and recent past.) The Detroit-born artist and Kresge fellow does think the city is filled with bad graffiti. To draw attention to the existing beauty of Detroit’s historic brick facades, and to prevent yet more graffiti from marring them, he facilitates the creation of stunning, colorful outdoor murals composed of what he calls “brixels.” (That’s “bricks” plus “pixels,” in reference to the blocky shapes they make, as well as the fact that they're originally generated online.) The community-created murals do more than that, though, as I learned when I pitched in to help create one in Woodbridge last weekend: They also bring people together, and let those of us who aren’t visual artists feel like we are, even for just a little while.

On Saturday, Tai gave paper "keys" to the 20 or so people who showed up to the alley behind the gas station at Warren and Trumbull (the "keys" let us know which bricks to paint which colors). He also gave us a whole lot of spray paint and some very basic instructions. (There was good food and drinks, too, which made the unseasonable heat a little more bearable.) The next few hours’ collaborative work was fun and focusing, and, by the end, we'd created a beautiful piece of public art that gleamed in the afternoon sun.

This was the fifth and final brixel piece that Tai himself will be organizing, as he hands over control to interested community members. I talked with him over e-mail about his work, street art and the future of brixels in Detroit.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Art that's barely there at MOCAD

(originally published 5/31/11 in KnightBlog)

Barely There (Part I)” opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. It’s the first installment in a two-part show that investigates “immateriality, presence, absence and performance.” "Part I" focuses on the mind, specifically on subjects like loss, geographic/linguistic identity and the power of questions. ("Part II," opening in the fall, will concentrate on the body.) Featuring work by 10 artists and including material from the 21st century, as well as the late 1920s and ‘60s, it’s an engaging, challenging show that’s well worth your attention.

Much of the work on display tends toward the conceptual. I’m thinking ofWilfredo Prieto’s "Infidelity" (2009), for instance, which is nothing more than a blue pen and a red pen cap arranged in way that suggests they’re about to meet. (I admit to feeling immediately annoyed by it, then being unable to resist its cheeky simplicity.)

I found other pieces more resonant, like Pascale Marthine Tayou’s powerful "Jpegafrica/Africagift" (2006), a pile of crumpled paper flags of all the countries on the African continent, and Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander’s 2002 video work, "Love Lettering." The video is shot inside a goldfish tank; many of the fish have small pieces of paper attached to their tails with words like “wish,” “hotel,” “eyes” and “you” printed on them. Turns out it’s a love letter, broken up and ultimately unreadable, except in kinetic, disconnected fragments.

For me, the most exciting and interesting piece was a made-for-TV work by the late, Detroit-born installation and performance artist James Lee Byars (who, I was thrilled to learn, will be the subject of a solo show at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2013). "World Question Center" is a weird, wonderful program that was broadcast live on primetime Belgian television in 1969. In it, Byars, surrounded by a ring of people wearing fascinating garments of his design, communicates by telephone with several dozen important thinkers of the age.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A new space for sound art in Eastern Market

Promotional photo by Greg Holm
(originally published 5/20/11 in KnightBlog)

Keep your eyes (and more to the point, your ears) on the 2:1 Gallery, a new art space in an old building in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. Under the guidance of Gregory Holm, one of the artists responsible for last year’s "Ice House Detroit" project, the space is currently serving as a pop-up sound art gallery. It’s also a kind of laboratory, where Holm and several collaborators work out ideas for another project: "Fire House Detroit." Holm describes "Fire House" as a “continuation of the dialogue started with ["Ice House"].” It culminates in a July 4 sound performance at a Corktown firehouse built in 1897. The performance will feature The Detroit Children’s Choir singing the words of a group of young poets known as the Street Poets Society.

It will also include the pyrophone, a striking instrument built by Holm and Jeffrey Williams that’s on display as part of “Haptic Resonance,” the show at 2:1 until the end of the month. The pyrophone consists of several glass tubes of varying lengths, each fixed atop a gas hose. When the gas is lit, the difference in temperature between the flames and tubes produces a rich, ambient drone.

There's much else to hear in the show, as much as there is to see and touch.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A walk in Detroit's Scripps Park

(originally published 5/13/11 in KnightBlog)

There’s an outdoor art exhibition opening in Detroit this Saturday that will demonstrate not only the talent of participating local artists, but also the spirit of cooperation and community engagement that distinguishes so much grassroots work in this city. Access Arts Detroit, which hosted four outdoor art exhibitions on Belle Isle in recent years, partnered with Forward Arts, a nonprofit arts program management group, and the Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation. Together, they are bringing art and activity to Scripps Park, an under-used public space in Woodbridge.

I spoke with Louis Casinelli, Access Arts Detroit’s founder and director, and Dominic Arellano, executive director of Forward Arts, about providing support to emerging artists and engaging the community through art in public places. Their partnership allowed Access Arts to grant stipends to artists producing work for the show and facilitated Access Arts’ ongoing efforts to reach at-risk Detroit youth through art education. (In addition to exhibiting work by the eight participating artists, the show will also feature work by three high school students who’ve participated in Access Arts’ education program.) Some highlights from our conversation are below.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Form and formlessness at 2739 Edwin

Photo by Michel Francois Soucisse
(originally published 4/26/11 in KnightBlog)

Marcelyn Bennett-Carpenter's Turn (one of two installations on view in Hamtramck this month) closed last Saturday night. To mark the occasion, there was an improvisational dance and music performance inside 2739 Edwin, the gallery space that housed the installation (composed of hundreds of translucent, tensile bands strung from floor to ceiling).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Waiting for Godot at the Abreact

(originally published 4/19/11 in KnightBlog)

Two friends separately cautioned me against seeing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is playing at the Abreact Performance Space in Corktown until May 7. “You know nothing happens,” one said. “For more than two hours.” Truth be told, when we got to the theater, located in the Lafayette Lofts, I was a little nervous. In a space as notably intimate as the Abreact (it seats about 40 and is literally inside the home of the production’s codirectors), there would be nowhere to hide from a boring play (or a bad production). But it turned out that I had nothing to fear; the almost 60-year old Godot, with its dazzling wordplay and pointed insights, is consistently beguiling. And the Abreact's production is outstanding: compelling throughout, frequently hilarious, and designed and acted with precision, intelligence and verve.

The truth is that much happens over the course of the play’s two acts. Vladimir (a restless, calculating Stephen Blackwell) and Estragon (David Schoen, sympathetic and mournful) do a lot of waiting, of course, but they also bicker, sing, philosophize, theorize, remember, dream, forget and consider suicide. They encounter the pompous Pazzo (an unforgettable Dave Davies), his slave Lucky (Lance Allen, who's truly astonishing) and a young representative of the absent Godot (a sly, watchful Sarah Galloway).
Read the rest at KnightBlog.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kids paint the Cass Corridor way with Gilda Snowden

(originally published 4/15/11 in KnightBlog)

Since 2007, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has invited children and their caregivers to create together during Family Days. This Sunday, kids will have the extraordinary opportunity to paint with noted local artist Gilda Snowden. Snowden is a Kresge Arts Fellow whose Flora Urbana series is currently on display as part of MOCAD's Art X Detroit show. (She's also an avid and observant chronicler of the local art scene; check out her wonderfulYoutube channel for more than 400 videos she's taken at gallery shows and other events.) Having studied under some of the original Cass Corridor artists in the late '70s, Snowden is offering a workshop called "Learn to Paint the Cass Corridor Way." I asked her about her relationship to the Cass Corridor art movement and what participants should expect out of the workshop. (For background on the movement, check out this essential essay by Wayne State art historian Dora Apel.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Two Hamtramck installations invite you inside

(originally published 4/9/11 in KnightBlog)

The two installations on display this month in Hamtramck couldn’t be more different from one another: Scott Hocking's chaotic Tartarus is a crowded and dirty underworld, while Marcelyn Bennett-Carpenter's elegant Turn is an ordered, minimalist paradise. But both invite you to explore and revel in the total environments they create, and as it turns out, Heaven and Hell are just a few streets from each other (and only open on Saturdays).

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pop up Detroit!

(originally published 4/1/11 in KnightBlog)

Pop Up Detroit is back. The temporary art gallery that periodically pops up around town started building a reputation last year as a showcase for Detroit's young artists and overlooked spaces. It premiered last fall in the Kresge Building downtown, followed by a Midtown Noel Night appearance in a vacant Art Deco auto showroom. This time, organizers Michelle Tanguay and Nina Marcus-Kurlonko are setting up shop at 71 Garfield, a recently redeveloped,green live-work space for artists in the Sugar Hill Arts District.

Eighteen visual artists, from the emerging to the established, are participating in the show, which opens Saturday, April 9. I asked Tanguay and Marcus-Kurlonko about their project, the upcoming show, and the space.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Material dreams at the N'Namdi Gallery

(originally published 3/29/11 in KnightBlog)

If you haven't visited the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art since it opened in the Sugar Hill Arts District last October, now's an excellent time. The splendid, 16,000 square foot facility is currently hosting its first curated show, New Departures and Transitions: Medium, Materiality and Immateriality. (Additionally, there are three other shows by individual artists on display in auxiliary galleries, each of which is worth a look.)

Curated by critic and College for Creative Studies instructor Michael Stone-Richards, New Departures and Transitions exhibits work by more than fifteen artists, some local, some national. (It's interesting, though, how the show succeeds in breaking down geographic distinctions; Industrialization, shown below, is by the New York artist Chaikia Booker, but its chaotic texture and sense of post-industrial anxiety look like something straight out of the Cass Corridor.)

The many, disparate works on display are unified by a shared sense of self-conscious materiality. They insist that you consider the materials used in their construction (tires, cable ties, encaustic paint, video, papier-mâché, and much more) as essential components of their meaning (or, in some cases, as their meaning).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cranbrook show dazzles at DAM

(originally published 3/8/11 in KnightBlog)

The annual Detroit Artists Market (DAM) Scholarship and Exhibition Programopened Friday at DAM’s midtown gallery. It features work by nine Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate students, all finalists for DAM's John F. Korachis Scholarship Award, as well as a handful of alumni. The exhibition commemorates more than 75 years of support provided by Cranbrook and DAM to the local arts community. All the pieces are for sale.

There's a wealth and variety of exceptional work to see. In content and form, the pieces are all over the map, from monumental oil reliefs to funny, tawdry fabric sculptures and dreamy, painted leisure scenes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour

Sketches of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's performance at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Feb. 18, 2011

The company performed two pieces: 1976's Squaregame, resurrected for this farewell tour, and 2003's Split Sides, a noted collaboration with the art rock bands Sigur Rós and Radiohead.


As the front curtain opened, it became clear that every other curtain on the stage was up, too, revealing in vivid light all that's usually obscured, backstage, during a performance: tall ladders, machinery, massive crates stacked five or six high, countless cords and dollies, wires and thick ropes. It was a rich visual cacophony, and the stage space seemed suddenly huge. After the dance began, there were moments when I stopped paying attention to the dancers and focused instead on the staggering landscape of things that surrounded them.

The dancers performed on a white square, bordered on two sides by astroturf. Their costumes were '70s rehearsal clothes in 
soft, muted colors. White cylindrical canvas bags, full but light, served as props and set decoration.

The movement quality in this dance was especially fragmented; individual body parts were especially articulate. It seemed to be a dance about joints. It's also a dance about watching, because frequently, dancers sat down, alone or in groups, to carefully watch the others.

Robert Swinston, the dancer who performed the solo originally danced by Cunningham, looked remarkably like the late choreographer, both in appearance and movement style. The effect was uncanny and disorienting, and I felt momentarily out of time.

The score, by Takehisa Kosugi, is better described as electronic sound art than music. It undulated and burbled, submitting sounds of the human voice to processes and modulations that resulted in a kind of globular, biological soup. I kept imagining the contractions of the dancers' muscles, and in extreme close-up, the movement of their and cells and blood.

Finale: several dancers are running, and one takes a canvas bags and hurls it into the air directly above him. It soars; he catches it. Lights out.

Split Sides

Cunningham, like his partner and collaborator, the composer John Cage, was known for using chance in the composition and performance of his dances. This piece, comprised of two different sections, has 32 possible permutations. On stage, before the performance, five rolls of a die determine the order of the two dances, as well as the two distinct costumes, set designs, lighting cues and scores. Seeing a live dance is a rare thing. Seeing any one of the 32 versions of this dance is rarer still.

We heard Sigur Rós' music first and Radiohead's second. Both bands fashioned relatively challenging soundscapes that respect Cunningham's avant garde musical legacy.

The Sigur R
ós piece moved from poignant, tender warmth to sparse hesitation, and from that to a shrill, screeching feedback assault. It included minimalist music box textures, metronomic beeping, and delicate sounds produced by pairs of miked ballet shoes, which we could see being "played" in the pit. (To create a slow, scratchy breathing sound, a musician gently dragged a pair of violin bows across the shoes.)

The Radiohead score was more aggressive, difficult and dissonant. It's the one that might have caused a few people near us to get up and walk out. (I was glad to see that a Cunningham concert can still ruffle a few feathers.) It made extraordinary use of stereo, the sound swinging hugely from one side of the room to the other. It included (briefly) what I thought was the only false step of the night, a documentary-style recording of an ominous, ranting Christian man. This felt too specific, too obvious. (But as Michel pointed out later, the piece premiered when we were still under the righteous, heavy hand of Bush II, when such sounds probably had more power to chill.)

The biological imagery of Kosugi's
Squaregame score was transferred to the costumes in Split Sides. Golden and deep pink in the first half of the performance, black and silver in the second, both sets of costumes featured expressionistic splatters and lines that traced like tree branches or veins. The silver and black costumes fit the dancers like a second skin, lending them a sort of metallic, extraterrestrial quality (only enhanced by their characteristically "unnatural" movements and an important, repeated gesture: craning their necks, they tilted their faces expectantly to the sky).

There was so much to see in this dance. Too much, in fact. Cunningham was known for quoting Einstein: "There are no fixed points in space." He applied this principle to his dancers, telling them that whichever way they happened to be facing was front, and constructing his staging so that it reflected a vision of "many centers." In doing so, he liberates the spectator from the pressure to see everything; since so many dancers are on stage doing so much at once, alone or in groups, seeing everything becomes physically impossible. I felt free, therefore, to spend whole minutes watching only two dancers after they suddenly came together and danced a smiling, joyful duet amid the controlled chaos of other moving bodies. For the same minutes, those two dancers must have only skirted the edges of another spectator's vision; this, in aggregate, is the kind of perceptual freedom that a Cunningham dance offers.

During the post-performance Q & A, Robert Swinston talked about the future of the dances, now that Cunningham has died & the company is disbanding. He said that there will be a small group of dancers who will be taught the dances and who will pass them on to other companies and later generations. I am in love with this absurdly romantic idea: a chosen fraternity of artist/athlete/disciples, dancing not to perform, but to remember.

Shortly after
Split Sides began, the house lights came up, momentarily disorienting the audience. For no more than 20 or 30 seconds, we were nearly as illuminated as the dancers, who continued uninterrupted. I felt certain that this was intentional, but later learned that the lights had been inadvertently triggered, a mistake that was corrected for the next night's performance. How lucky to have been there for this extraordinary misstep, which couldn't have been better-suited to Cunningham's work. The choreographer spoke often of waking audiences rather than lulling or hypnotizing them, and the quality of the gradually brightening light, accompanied by the then-tender Sigur Rós music, was dawn-like. Chance was an integral part of Cunningham's work, and by chance alone, Split Sides echoed the meta-performative aspects of Squaregame. The accidental light compelled us to look away from the dancers and around at one another; it reminded us that we were members of an audience, all watching the same dance, yet each, alone, watching our own.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Moments of being: Andre Kertesz at the DIA

(originally published 3/11/11 in KnightBlog)

If you haven’t been to the Detroit Institute of Arts’ photography gallery lately, stop by and check out the current show, An Intuitive Eye: André Kertész Photographs 1914-1969. This generous exhibition of elegant black and white images traces the influential modernist’s career from Hungary, where it began, to Paris in 1925 and New York in 1936. The work from each period is distinct, but consistently displays an extraordinary sensitivity to shadow, light and geometry, a sensitivity that DIA associate curator Nancy Barr describes as “unique in [Kertész’s] time.”

As one of the first street photographers, Kertész captured spontaneous moments of urban activity while emphasizing the lines, shapes, planes and textures that such moments consist of (visually, anyway). The show features many of these remarkable, candid shots, but also draws attention to his still life and portrait work, which is no less riveting.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: If on a winter's night a traveler

Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) is one of those delightful books that arrived on my shelf unbidden and unknown, and proved to be exactly what I didn't know I was looking for.


The copy I read, a 1981 translation by William Weaver from the original Italian, was given to Michel by a coworker as a secret Santa gift, along with a copy of Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea ("a novel of the homicidal hysteria that lies latent in the Japanese character," screams the deeply embarrassing 1965 cover). Both worn, yellowing paperbacks were excavated from my favorite Detroit treasure trove, the massive book store John K. King Used & Rare Books, so I found myself naturally endeared to each. But which to read? With Michel in the middle of a couple other books and just starting his semester, I had my pick. I was drawn to the Mishima first, since I was (obviously) curious to learn more about the "astounding masterpiece of taut violence" that exposed the murderous mania apparently hidden deep in the soul of the Japanese people, but then Michel said that I should read the first few pages of the Calvino if I hadn't already. I'll reproduce the first paragraphs so you can see what persuaded me to switch:

"You are about the begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on the in the next room. Tell the others right away, 'No, I don't want to watch TV!' Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--'I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!' Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: 'I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!' Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, or a hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally."

Naturally, I was hooked. Calvino's novel is a smart, labyrinthine, postmodern adventure in bibliomania. (If you're overfamiliar with and/or suspicious of pomo trickery and reflexivity, it might not be for you. I've still sampled only selectively from the postmodern corpus, and only from the work of American authors, so I was sufficiently delighted and titillated.) And if the descriptor "postmodern" makes the book sound laborious or tedious to slug through, it's far from it. You can get a sense of Calvino's sly, playful style from the excerpted paragraphs; it's a joy to read.

The plot concerns you, the Reader. You're reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler, about a mysterious man in a train station, and enjoying it quite a bit -- until you realize that after p. 32, the novel returns to p. 17. From there, it proceeds again only until p. 32, and then starts once more at p. 17. In fact, the whole book's like this. (Well, not the book you're reading. I mean the real you, not the fictional you. Calvino merely describes this maddening publisher's error; he doesn't make the real you actually read it.) Anyway, back to the fictional you: you're terribly upset that you can't finish the novel you're so enjoying, so you go to the bookstore where you bought it to demand a new copy. It's there that you meet the Other Reader, a young woman with huge eyes, exacting literary sensibilities, and a capacious memory for the details of the numerous books she loves. She too is there to demand a new copy of the botched Calvino novel, and you're immediately...intrigued.

And so the romance begins. You and the Other Reader seek out the rest of the text of If on a winter's night a traveler, but when you find it, you realize that it's not the same novel at all. As it turns out, the new text that you have your hands on is also quite good, but also incomplete, leading you to find the rest of that novel. You might imagine where this is going: If on a winter's night alternates between two threads: one follows you and the sometimes-aloof Other Reader on your increasingly disorienting quest to find a novel that keeps morphing into others, and the other consists of the first chapters of each of these incomplete novels (ten in all, each by a different fictional author, taking place in a different country, and all with vastly divergent plots). This Borgesian narrative maze might sound like it results in a frustrating reading experience, since you're being constantly yanked from each story right at the moment when you're really getting into it, but somehow it works. This is in part because the plots and styles of the different novels are so varied that you can't wait to see where the next one goes, and because the writing is so consistently good and the characters so singular and carefully sketched that it doesn't matter whether or not you finish the stories; it's a pleasure to spend any time with them at all. There's also the compelling adventure that's sustained in the parallel, second-person narrative, where you begin to realize that the baffling incompleteness of the ten novels is somehow deliberate, somehow connected.

This is a book lover's book (well, maybe a book fanatic's book) and just because it's a lot of fun doesn't mean that it doesn't ask important questions. It's interested in publishing, censorship, different ways of reading, different reasons for reading, choosing not to read,
writing and its attendant anxieties, the relationship between text and reality, the relationship between author and text, and the relationship between reader and author (to start). But of paramount importance is the relationship between reader and text. Calvino (and Weaver, his translator) meditates in beautiful, ecstatic language about reading; it's the expansive, benevolent delight and pleasure the novel takes in the act of reading (again, recalling Borges) that left the strongest impression on me. For Calvino, reading is, among much else, "that invisible movement...the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person, their course or their arrest, their spurts, delays, pauses, the attention concentrating or straying, the returns, that journey that seems uniform and on the contrary is always shifting and uneven." I can't think of another book I've read about reading that was more satisfying to, well, read.