- Involved the local community in its creation, granting participants access to the therapeutic benefits of making something together—while not sacrificing the artist's strong, coherent vision and well-developed sensibility
- Creates ongoing opportunities for residents of and visitors to the neighborhood to meet and build connections, and to have access, at no cost, to the salutary and stimulating effects of exceptional art
- Raises awareness of the local place where it's sited, increasing foot traffic to and identification with the park and the neighborhood
- Possesses qualities of the truly mysterious, surprising, and beautiful, encouraging acts of urban escapade and discovery that are not commercial/market-mediated
- Is broadly accessible, both physically and conceptually (it's hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with trends in art feeling it's "over their head" and therefore alienating)
- Is temporary, liberating it from pretensions to monumentality and better suited to the vicissitudes of the urban environment—anticipating and avoiding situations in which its maintenance over time would drain organizational/municipal resources, or in which it would decay, like so much environmental art in and around Detroit, due to the lack of those resources or a realistic long-term plan for its maintenance.
Thursday, December 2, 2021
Sunday, October 3, 2021
It's been eight days since the Detroit production of Bliss, the titanic performance installation staged by Michigan Opera Theatre in the ruins of the old Michigan Theatre, and here I am still bobbing along like a lifeboat in its wake.
Somehow I did not expect this. Going into it, I did have the feeling that I would probably love the experience of attending Bliss, a twelve hour opera event originally conceived by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, in which three sublime minutes of music from the conclusion of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro—the moments when a count publicly asks his wife's forgiveness for attempting to seduce a servant and, much to their community's joy, she grants it—are repeated over and over and over again.If this makes the performance sound static or dull, it wasn't. The staging of each three minute cycle varied, subtly or dramatically, from the one before it; the light changed entirely as day turned to night; and sometimes there was dancing. The audience, meanwhile, was invited to come, go, and move around as we pleased. With audience and production ever in flux, there was a sense of constant renewal and change against the perpetual backdrop of the music.
|Corey McKern as Count Almaviva. He only took two short breaks in twelve hours!|
And I did love being there. It was the tops—one of my all time great performances. I was immersed in Bliss for about five hours, all told, with a short break for a walk around the block and a longer one for dinner and more art (during which I nevertheless felt tugged, insistently, back to the theatre), and my experience was everything I hoped it would be: overwhelming, surprising, dreamlike, joyful. Ecstatic. Intoxicating.
More generally, I have felt, in ways that aren't necessarily easy to put into words, more at ease, more relaxed, more inspired, more myself. Less clenched. I have the sense of having unburdened a certain amount of weight I've been carrying this summer, this year, this pandemic. I'm operating from some new baseline of contentment. This can't last, of course, and every day I can feel the distance between that time and the time I'm in grow a little wider, but for now, I'm living in it, I'm looking at it, and I'm feeling profoundly grateful for whatever on earth Bliss did to my brain. (Honestly, someone should do a study.)
But so what? you might reasonably ask. So what if I'm over here feeling blissed?
Well, I've been thinking about that. By making the decision to stage Bliss at the Michigan Theatre, one of Detroit's most well-known ruins—a once glorious palace that was infamously converted into a parking garage in the 1970s—MOT's new artistic director Yuval Sharon had a stroke of genius that I think accounts for some of the work's peculiar punch. This was not merely an exciting, dramatic, eminently Instagrammable backdrop for Bliss (though it was that, too); it was an opportunity to place the production's theme of forgiveness in a particular local context to profound effect.
In his brief but trenchant program notes, Sharon notes that the repetition of those three minutes is Kjartansson's way of suggesting that forgiveness is itself a durational experience: "a marathon, not a sprint." A process, not an event.
By staging his Bliss in the Michigan Theatre, Sharon granted Detroiters and suburbanites alike an opportunity to embrace one of the City's ruins in a way that no major arts organization has done here, as far as I'm aware—to inhabit it, to look right at it, to be in it, to wonder in it, not to avoid it or shake our heads at it, or even objectify it in that way that ruin porn is criticized for doing. The audience became part of that place, or rather we were given the opportunity to accept that we are a part of it, and that it is a part of us.
We were invited, in other words, to engage in a process of forgiving the City for its failures, of which the Michigan Theatre is a particularly vivid example.
On one hand, there is a civic dimension to this, in which the individual audience member could be said to have been invited to forgive "the City," writ large, for the grievous sins the Michigan Theatre represents—racist disinvestment, decline, and disrespect, auto-mania, forgetfulness, self-sabotage...the list goes on.
But then again, as several wise Detroiters in my life have asked to powerful rhetorical effect, who is the City if you're not the City?
There is a deeper level here, where the City is not some historical abstraction but the people in attendance. I think Detroit's Bliss gave audience members the opportunity to forgive ourselves; that's why I've been floating through my week. That's why it matters.
Every day today, we are bombarded with evidence of our failures. On social media, in the news, we are confronted with an endless litany, a barrage of failure: our failure to protect the natural world we fail to remember we're part of, our failure to get along, our failure to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us, to respect one another, to connect with and learn from each other, to separate fact from fantasy.... We live in a world of failure now. It seems inescapable.
In Detroit, perhaps more than in many other places, we are somewhat used to inhabiting a landscape of failure. We cannot help but be reminded of our collective carelessness every time we leave the house, by every closed library and abandoned school, every gutted, treeless expanse, every parking lot where a building used to be, every residential neighborhood situated near a toxic industrial facility or ripped in two by concrete conduits for cars, and the reality is that daily life in this nearly unremitting chaos takes a psychic toll. How could it not?
Bliss offered its audience no solutions to our endemic problems. Instead, it gave us, briefly but penetratingly, a large measure of redemption and grace that we desperately need in our ruined, wasted world. This is akin to the kind of regenerative grace we might otherwise find in nature or in community, compressed by art's magic into twelve hours that gestured toward the eternal. Through its repetition, its beauty, its sensitive siting and its scale, Bliss gave us a useful tool we could carry with us and share, a device for remembering and accessing peace when we need it. And it left us rich with the real fruits of forgiveness: a shift in perception, a new frame of reference, a chance to begin again.
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Last month I learned of the passing of Dr. María Gonzalez, an extraordinary woman I had the good fortune to know during my graduate studies in Library and Information Science at Wayne State nearly a decade ago.—advancing the common good by facilitating knowledge exchange in urban communities—is unforgettable.
To María, librarians and other information professionals carried a responsibility to stand up and be counted, to infiltrate the halls of power armed with values, strategies, and resources that would advance the connectedness and wellbeing of common people. An avowed urbanist, I think she saw cities, with their overlapping layers of commerce, history, power, and poverty, as places where civically minded people of all stripes could have the greatest impact. She was an activist, demanding engagement in her quiet yet fiery way, at the same time she was a pragmatist, making sure our eyes stayed open to the ways that business and government actually worked. She introduced me to the concept of social capital, or the resources and benefits gained from social ties, when she had us read and discuss Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," which examines some of the ways that civil society and social cohesion in the US have eroded, making us a "nation of loners" (as many commentators have summarized Putnam's central concern).
María was rooted in place. More than anyone else I knew at the School of Library and Info Science, her class was of Detroit, not merely in Detroit. Her borders were porous, and the city flowed in and out. It was this spirit of presence in place that made her stand out there, and that I have to thank for my employment at the business I've helped lead for more than seven years.
María was a flâneur, a stroller of city streets. Not confined to Wayne State's superblock campus, she walked the neighborhood around the university. That's how, in 2008, she got to know Tom and Peggy Brennan, Mitzi and Don Carter, and Helen and Tom Bradley, together the cofounders of the nascent Green Garage, which was to become a community-minded shared workspace and sustainability demonstration center in the Cass Corridor.
And that's how, in 2010, I first connected with the Green Garage, undertaking a semester-long project that turned into a volunteer opportunity, then part-time writing work, then a nourishing full-time leadership role that has become my professional center—one of the main wellsprings of my own social capital—since 2013.
|My first visit to the Green Garage, 2010, with Ian, a fellow student, and the late Tom Bradley|
I often tell the story of my chance connection with the Green Garage as facilitated by María. Each student in our class was tasked with helping a Detroit business or organization meet an information need over the course of the semester. In the seminar's first days, María handed out the predetermined list we had to choose from, and I remember feeling particularly drawn to two organizations: the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which I knew fairly well, and the Green Garage, which I only knew from a short article I had read online (something about green business; something about the transformation of a neglected thoroughfare into the city's first green alley).
I remember the sense of taking a leap. I remember thinking that MOCAD was the obvious choice. (I loved art, I wrote about art, I visited the museum regularly.) And I remember thinking to myself, "It's grad school; go out on a limb. Pursue the less likely path. Meet these green business people." It goes without saying that I'm glad I did. I've had the good fortune of enjoying formative relationships with several beloved teachers over the years, but María is the one whose influence materially changed the course of my life.
Not long after our time together, María left Wayne State, and the sense among people I talked to about it was that she was too progressive for the stodgy library school. They had irreconcilable differences, I guess, and María moved away, first to Delaware and then Los Angeles. She continued to teach, working in the Public History departments of Rutgers and LaSalle University. We kept up with each other on Facebook, where she would make loving, out-of-the-blue posts on my wall ("My best to you always!") and where she played the part of a Green Garage superfan, forever encouraging the business' growth and cheerleading any good news we shared. I didn't know until after her death that, in recent years, she had been diagnosed with cancer, and then ALS. Our last communication was a breezy, friendly greeting in March.
The time that María and I had spent together was rich, but it was largely defined by the classroom, where she was purposeful and focused, and Facebook, where she was fleet. In the days after I learned of her death, I began to wonder about her life story. I knew only the barest details of her biography: that she was Cuban-American (she spoke beautifully accented English) and that she was queer (I don't remember how I came to know that, but I couldn't help admiring her more for it).
I decided to reach out to Chela Metzger, Maria's partner of 20 years and a librarian at UCLA, to learn more. Chela generously filled in the gaps of María's extraordinary story, some details of which I'll recount here:
María was born in Havana in 1950. Chela says that it was in Havana where she began to develop her lifelong love of buildings and construction. At the age of 11, she and her grandmother fled to Tampa, Florida to escape the Cuban revolution, in which several family members had been killed. (Her parents escaped and joined them one year later.) After high school in Tampa, she went to UCLA, then Kent State to study architecture.
After time in New York City and Provincetown, María went to Seattle, where she worked in the construction industry, both owning her own commercial construction business and later developing clients for a large national firm.
In that capacity, she was invited to join the planning commission for the new Seattle Central Library, where she developed an admiration for Deborah Jacobs, the transformative City Librarian who spearheaded Seattle's historic, citywide library building project. It was this experience, Chela told me, that led María to librarianship, and to the University of Texas at Austin, where she completed her Master's and PhD and from where she decamped to Detroit to begin teaching at Wayne State in 2008.
|Arcosanti. Photograph by Rosa Menkman, 2018.|
Friday, July 3, 2020
|Lester Johnson with Continuum, 1974, Detroit News photo courtesy of |
Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Thursday, April 16, 2020
Nawrocki describes Crystal Transformation as a "highly geometric," nature-inspired sculpture whose "nine units...grow larger and change color...as they move in a broad arc from the bottom to the top of a small hill."
Glacial, meanwhile, is an "audaciously simple sculpture" that "consists of two [polished] quarter-inch stainless steel planes" installed flush in a lawn, "one essentially rectangular (five by ten feet) and the other triangular (three feet per side)," that "[suggest] airborne views of glacial lakes, or pools of standing or frozen water."
Drawn as I am to most things minimal, environmental, and geometric (ah, the '70s: a country I never got to visit in person but where my sensibility has apparently taken up permanent residence), I asked Michel if he wanted to go look at them and he said, without missing a beat, "Yes!" (What can I say? I married the right person.)
We drove 20 or so miles to the sleepy, near-deserted campus, parked, and began to walk to the central square, where we immediately spied Crystal Transformation: a commanding and elegant intervention in the landscape.
Considered as an abstract thing, Barr's sure sculpture is lively and entertaining, with a shifting play of sun and shadow on its faceted surfaces. Considered as a site specific work, the "transformations" depicted take on added meaning, even a certain poignancy, reminding the viewer-in-motion that to learn is to take part in a gradual change process.
Regrettably, as with so much aging, aspirational public art in metro-Detroit, Barr's sculpture has been neglected, and shows signs of deterioration. Artist Ryan Standfest, Barr's onetime student at Macomb Community College and later his studio assistant, expressed his frustration when he told me, "I wish MCC would take better care of that piece. I know [Barr] provided the school with all the correct colors, paint formulas, sources. I think they covered it with exterior household paint at some point...."
As deserving as Crystal Transformation is of better care, it at least resists obsolescence, for now, by virtue of its monumental presence, its powerful vertical and horizontal thrust.
The same cannot be said for "audaciously simple," earthbound Glacial. We figured it would be harder to spot, since Nawrocki had noted in the third edition of Art in Detroit Public Places (published in 2008) that, "over the years the grass has overgrown the edges of the steel plates, noticeably reducing their visibility."
We ventured over to the lawn where we thought it ought to be and caught a glimpse of its two sections, by now so neglected as to be nearly invisible.
After our exploration, as we prepared to leave the campus, we encountered the man with the dog again, now with a few companions. "We cleaned off a LOT more of that art!" he exclaimed with a big smile. Naturally, we went back to check out their work and, uh, it turns out they were a little less worried about lifting up the sod than we were....
Whoops. Well, we started it. Not wanting to leave such a raggedy-looking scene for too long, Michel and I agreed that we ought to clean it up as soon as possible, and returned the next day with the necessary supplies. We managed to get 45 minutes or so of work done before our progress was halted by persistent rain. We left feeling satisfied that we'd done a decent thing for the art, the artist, and the campus community, but once again, we felt eager to get back soon to complete our act of homage/guerrilla restoration.
I picture Glacial, partially present yet still mostly unseen (except perhaps by the occasional dog walker—I picture one in particular pausing to admire it as he passes). Reflecting sky, tree, bird, beast.
I look forward to returning, to finishing what we started.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
|Talking and gesturing like someone who knows things|
Somehow four year have gone by (what?) and look! It's another Leap Year. Thus it is my profound pleasure to invite you to LEAP NIGHT 2, a screening of a whole new crop of exceptional and inspiriting dance films on February 29 at, once again, Play House.
To answer a pretty common question: no, we're not going to watch Dirty Dancing. I actually haven't seen Dirty Dancing (I know, I know) and while I'm sure it's fun to watch, it's not exactly what I'm aiming for here. (Though that does remind me of a related event I'd like to host someday, a screening of dance sequences from popular films...).
By "dance films," I mean a particular species of art film called dance-for-camera: typically short, non-narrative works made by film or video artists in close collaboration with dancers and choreographers. This is a great if underappreciated genre that is all about re-imagining the experience of watching, understanding, and enjoying dance. In it, the camera does not merely record a performance, documentary-style, but becomes an integral part of the choreography.
At its core, dance-for-camera is ultimately about liberation. Not just the liberating possibilities of dance, the most immediate and vital of the arts, but the liberation of the filmmaker (from narrative conventions) and of the spectator (from the fixed, earthbound perspective of traditional live performance, and from preconceptions of what dance can be and mean). As much as these rarely-screened films are about human bodies in motion (and they are, gloriously and beguilingly, about that), they are also about experiment and creative risk-taking, about how the camera, editing, and special effects can re-order our experience of the world in ways that transcend and expand our limited powers of perception.
|Dancer (2011) by Dara Friedman. Courtesy of the artist.|
This year's program will include an assortment of works made between 1899 and 2018. Since I'd like there to be some surprises the night of, I'm not going to publish the whole lineup here, but I am thrilled to share that LEAP NIGHT 2 will include the opportunity to see high quality digital versions of two especially miraculous works in this genre: Dara Friedman's 2011 Dancer, a sprawling, sensuous black and white film in which Miami's urban environment is imagined (or perhaps revealed) as a place where dance happens everywhere, and Nam June Paik's 1978 Merce by Merce by Paik, a radically inventive videodance in which Paik, along with collaborators Charles Atlas, Shigeko Kubota, and legendary dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, joyfully explode time and space in their rigorous and restless exploration of the form. (Can video dance?)
|Merce by Merce by Paik (1978) by Nam June Paik. In collaboration with Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham, and Shigeko Kubota. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.|
LEAP NIGHT 2 will take place on February 29, 2020 from 7:30-9:30 at Play House, 12657 Moran St., Detroit, MI 48212. The films will be presented in a continuous 1.5 hour program. Admission is free but donations to support the space/programming are welcome. Come by!
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Joining me for the conversation was Saundra Little, a principal at the architecture firm Quinn Evans and the co-founder of Noir Design Parti, an organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the legacy of black architects in Detroit, and whose extensive, ongoing research was the basis for my article.
The segment is about 14 minutes long and is available to listen to here!