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.