Detroit’s creative entrepreneurs, a multi-disciplinary group that includes artists, curators, designers, filmmakers, and architects, are drawn to the city by cheap housing, lots of space to get work done, and the potential inherent in a strong DIY culture. They work with the raw materials available in the city – abandoned houses, industrial buildings, empty lots – and reshape them into something new and useful. Their collective project is Detroit and its resurgence, or at least its transformation from what it is now to what it might become in the near future. Some members of this group are recent Detroit transplants, while others have been living and working in Detroit for years. Importantly, they have chosen to be in Detroit. They are joining other hard-working, resourceful Detroiters who have stayed in the city in spite of social and economic problems; many of these residents have remained not by choice, but because they don’t have the resources to leave.
There are countless small-scale projects aimed at social transformation happening in Detroit. I have chosen to profile the work of people whose projects cross disciplinary boundaries, and whose interventions exist at the intersection of public art, community development, design innovation, and social change. I spoke to several of these creative entrepreneurs in order to get a better understanding of what it’s like on the ground. Importantly, most of the initiatives I’ve chosen to highlight are supported by private foundations (the Knight Foundation, http://www.knightfoundation.org/, being the main one), local businesses, private colleges, and members of the community who donate both money and time. Detroit lacks an arts council and there is very little state or city funding for the arts. (W Magazine, Linda Yablonsky, “Art Motors On”, http://www.wmagazine.com/artdesign/2011/11/detroit-art-scene)
For new resident, Megan O’Connell, an artist-educator who moved to Detroit last summer, the possibilities of Detroit as a dynamic and striving city in transition, are evident: "People with skills and good hearts and a (physical) space can change the way a city is used and perceived, can change people's lives”. . . . "(In Detroit) there is something shifting, people are invested and committing their lives to making something that will be viable" (from conversation with O’Connell, 2/14/12). Currently the proprietor of her own press in Eastern Market, O’Connell was the founding director of Signal-Return, a letterpress print shop and studio in the Eastern Market area of downtown Detroit (http://www.signalreturnpress.org/). With start-up funds and people resources provided by Team Detroit, an ad and marketing agency, Signal-Return is a multi-purpose venture: it’s a retail space, a for-hire print shop, a training facility, an art gallery, and a community gathering place. It’s housed in a former 1920s warehouse in Eastern Market, the longest-running and largest public farmers market in the country. The founders purchased vintage presses and accessories from a family print shop and local college, repurposing materials which had been in use for nearly a century.
In the four months since it opened, the print shop has put on a retrospective of the books/scores of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, offered letterpress workshops, hosted an event at which two made-in-Detroit documentary films were screened, and has organized discussion salons for members of the public. Future projects include teaching high-school students the craft of letterpress printing through the making of election-year posters which will be exhibited at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), and running a poetry competition for farmers. The work of the farmer “poet laureate” will be printed on banners and posters and distributed and publicly displayed throughout the area.
Design 99, a design studio founded in 2007 by artist and Michigan native Mitch Cope and architect Gina Reichert “seeks out opportunities to experiment with art and design within their community” and to “investigate means of off-the-grid power production, public art initiatives and neighborhood participation”. They started out by offering their design services out of a retail storefront in a culturally diverse area of Hamtramck, really a small city within the city. In addition to inexpensive consultations available to the public at the store, for $99 neighbors could get a house call. Since then their business has shifted. Their main initiative is the Power House, an actual house reconfigured to produce its own electricity from solar and wind power with the long-term goal of creating a localized power grid. The name Power House has another important meaning: “a kind of taking control of one’s own community by becoming an example of self reliance, sustainability and creative problem solving through education, communication and increased diversification of the neighborhood”. http://www.powerhouseproductions.org/index.php?/network/power-house/
In 2009, Cope and Reichart formed a non-profit, Power House Productions, whose mission is to carry out projects that stabilize and revitalize the neighborhood. They work with a network of artists, many of whom come from other cities (both US and international) to live in-residence while collaborating on project work. Most of the projects involve turning reclaimed houses into “art objects” and “innovative community spaces”. So, very purposefully, in the act of reclaiming neglected and under-used spaces, there is a coming together of a community. In-progress projects range from a public recording studio; to a neighborhood bike and skateboard “park” which runs through a house, alleys and vacant lots; to the “Squash House”, a house which will be converted into a squash court, a place for art events, and, in its backyard, a community garden. With all of these projects, there is an effort to recycle materials and use renewable energy: building materials are salvaged from nearby dilapidated and abandoned houses and transformed for new uses, and electricity is supplied by solar and wind power.
Part 2 to follow.