Counter-Experiment Detroit

‘So, what brings you to this place of Post-Fordism?’ Somewhat confusingly, I was asked this question not in Detroit, but at a Jamaican food stall in Hulme, Manchester. Having literally just returned from Detroit, this felt like an odd reprise – as did seeing the ruined entrails of the Hulme Hippodrome where my band was performing at a fundraiser for Youth Village. It seemed like an apt place to write something on a very different festival, Imaging Detroit, which was put on at Detroit’s Perrien Park by MODCaR, a ‘coalition of builders, writers, designers, photographers, teachers, filmmakers, landscapers, graphic designers and students’ founded by architects Mireille Roddier, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges and sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP). Having lost my notes somewhere in the dark while fiddling with the film projector, I have to reconstruct things from memory. (I hope I do get the chance to listen back to all of the panels, although there were many irretrievable informal conversations going on in the park, between and amongst Detroiters and visitors.)

For those who have not read my earlier posts, I participated in the Imaging Detroit festival as a MODCaR fellow, contributing a short ‘illustrated podcast’ called ‘Sounds Like Detroit’. The festival aimed to draw attention to – and discuss – what could be described as a ‘representation war’ over the city. So far, the people at MODCaR have unearthed over 150 documentaries on the birthplace of Fordism, most of them produced in the last few years: by activists, artist, film-makers from inside and outside Detroit, and, more recently, by big corporations.

About fifty of those films were debated by the Imaging Detroit audience and so called ‘discourse jockeys’ (moderators/discussants) under the six most prominent film themes: Culture Now!, Productive Pastoral, Reboot, Post-America, Do-it-together and Pride. Since these representations continue to affect Detroiters in a myriad of ways, the discussions often became very agitated and emotional. Due to my inability to give a summary of the entire event, I will focus on the term that most stuck with me: experimentation – a term that is currently proliferating in academic and activist circles, an empassioned example being Doreen Massey’s recent call for experimentation at the ‘Maps for an Island Planet’ event.

Discourse jockeys Brandon Walley, Miguel Robles-Duran, Andrew Herscher, Cornelius Harris, Cezanne Charles, David Adler on the ‘Culture Now!’ panel.

Detroit has often been described as a socio-economic experiment. Its mythical chief experimenter, Henry Ford, has become associated with the proliferation of a new mass production system, technological innovation, intrusive worker control (through the company’s own ‘Sociological Department’), encouragement of working class property ownership and the staging of Ford’s own version of industrial history in the Greenfield model village. Detroit’s infrastructure, characterised by isolated neighbourhoods (dis)connected by freeways, counts as a combined experiment in car culture promotion and racial segregation.

At Imaging Detroit, experimentation featured strongly as a theme in both panels and films. While some people saw themselves as victims of capitalist/corporate/white American experimentation, others asserted the role of the experimenter. Those that regarded themselves as experimented on often voiced hope for an influx of either large or small businesses in order to normalise the city. The experimenters, on the other hand, made clear that Detroiters were not powerless guinea pigs, but in fact leading the way in matters such as civil rights, workers rights and alternative imaginaries against corporate America. Obviously, no neat separation between experimenters and experimented could be traced, as people frequently felt part of both positions: as victims of a ‘shock doctrine’ approach to public services (to use the words of activist Shea Howell who, I think also suggested that ‘those people who keep arguing for less government involvement in their lives should all move to Detroit!’*), and as people who are honing tactics against and beyond it.  –* a reader has pointed out that the ‘less government involvement’ comment was not made by Shea Howell, but by Margi Dewar. Apologies!

So why Detroit? Coming across to me from the different and differing voices during the festival was a sense that it is exactly this history of inequality and aggressive advertisement of individualist consumer culture that serves as a provocation to try something else. Audrey Hunter, an interviewee in the film ‘Détroit, un rêve en ruine’, gave an example of the inspiration that many black activists in the city draw on: the tension between the concepts they associate with ‘African’ and ‘American’. For experimenters such as her, the African symbolises the ‘we/us/our whereas the American signifies ‘I/me/mine’:

‘As long as you keep functioning as an individual, we can’t even take advantage of the blight to take control of our community, to build what it is that we won’t build.’

This image was occasionally evoked against the perceived media stereotype of Detroit as being ‘full of enterprising young white people and… then there are these ‘soulful’ black people’ (discourse jockey Cornelius Harris). The question of control, or rather the struggle over control of representations of the city, was crucial to many debates.

This struggle, to me, was particularly made present through the series Detroit: Overdrive: loud, fast and ultra-high definition (the biggest file size in the whole programme), this adrenaline-inducing documentary comes as slick and corporate as it gets. Sponsored by General Motors and aired by the Discovery Channel’s ironically titled Planet Green, this documentary is clearly produced as a counter-narrative to both economic blight and alternative economics. It is interesting that, while many ‘blight’ stories seem intended mostly as cautionary fables for audiences outside of the city, Detroit: Overdrive sought to inspire both inside and outside. Advertised in downtown Detroit on huge billboards, the posters claimed: ‘This is your story – we are just telling it!’ And what is the story? Detroit as the continued seat of All-American commerce and innovation, now turning out products such as Kid Rock’s ‘Badass’ beer and Motor City themed designer jeans.

Image: Sven Gustafson, A Healthier Michigan

This strategy, to quote ‘discourse jockey’ and photographer Noah Stephens, can be summarised as: ‘Gentrify the popular imagination of Detroit.’ This may raise alarm bells with people in cities such as London where gentrification has very negative associations with misguided development, rarely benefitting those it claims to support, e.g. Docklands-like social segregation or higher rents forcing out the original population, something which, according to local film-maker Oren Goldenberg, is already happening in some parts of Detroit. In the case of Detroit: Overdrive, and documentaries in this vein, it felt as if the over-the-top, big budget representation of innovation as a driver of prosperity had been wheeled out as a piece of heavy artillery against the ramshackle army of comparatively lo-fi images of ridicule, doom and utopian visions (although, it has to be said, some low budget ‘gentrification’ attempts also exist). Like the media wars during the American presidential elections, the struggle for the supremacy of visions appears to be in full swing: whose vision will take hold of the popular imagination? Will alternative experiments stand a chance against the corporate PR machine? And what do these experiments consist of?

The latter question seems to be the most difficult, as it became evident from listening to all of the panels. There was a feeling that people from outside Detroit were attracted to the city precisely for this experimentation, but often just ‘parachuted in, talking and doing nothing’ (audience comment). In the first panel, the suggestion was made for Detroiters to network with other ‘experimental spaces’ in the world, to learn from one another’s unique strategies against common problems, and to disseminate this knowledge (e.g. discourse jockey Miguel Robles-Duran). Here, Sabine Gruffat’s film ‘I have always been a dreamer’, an unlikely comparison (at first glance) of Detroit and Dubai, provided food for thought. In this sense, Imaging Detroit did feel like a moment of learning and experimentation, albeit on a small scale. How much experimentation took place and will take place by its participants? This is difficult to track and perhaps an irrelevant question. What seems, on the other hand, more relevant, is that Detroit, as a place of exchanging and working on visions is, indeed, ‘open for business’.

Big THANK YOU to the whole MODCaR team for having me & to all who came and participated!

(Dear Readers: Feel free to post links to related projects/media in the comments!)


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