Ruin Porn or Realism? Why Chicago’s Artists Are Obsessed with Detroit

What is it about the Motor City that keeps inspiring the artists in Chicago?

In the last half-decade, no less than five “exchange exhibitions,” several fact-finding missions and study trips, and a graduate seminar that positioned the entire city of “Detroit as material,” have contributed to a mushrooming local interest—let’s call it our Motor City crush—among artists, curators, and arts educators.

But why has Detroit, a city 300 miles east and better known as a modern wasteland—burned-out, crime-ridden, and dilapidated—stirred the minds of Chicago’s artists? The aftermath of Detroit’s severe economic depression turned out ripe materials for the artistic imagination: cheap, gigantic spaces; detritus loaded with readymade values; neighborhoods begging for transformation. In many ways Detroit has offered not a blank slate but a case study in experimental urban rejuvenation, calling adventurists and venture capitalists alike.

There are dozens of destinations for art-savvy travelers, from Manhattan to Marfa, but interest in Detroit has swelled beyond tourism, striking a note of self-impelled, feel-good activism almost to the point of colonialism. Detroit is “the last frontier for contemporary art,” described the exhibition announcement for 2008’s Changing Cities at Threewalls Gallery. Other exhibitions view Detroit and Chicago as kin. Suitcase Art, for example, recently packaged artwork from the peer cities in the luggage of curator Tricia van Eck, which she exported to Hamburg, Germany, for display this past autumn.

I spotted artist/urban activist Theaster Gates at the opening of the current Exchange: Chicago-Detroit (on view through 1/31 at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition) and asked him about the phenomenon. He described Detroit as Chicago’s “needy step-sister,” implying that Midwestern cities have an obligation to support each others’ efforts because we share so much in common. Are Chicagoans drawn to Detroit by our urgent sense of empathy? Could what happened in Detroit happen here?

Detroit photographer Scott Hocking admitted to a pigeonholing effect as a consequence to the exploitation of the Detroit art brand. Hocking’s photos (one shown above), which definitely partake in the ruin-porn genre, are on display in the current CAC show and were featured in 2008’s Heartland exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art. His photos may seem to scream for creative intervention from outsiders, but Hocking says otherwise: His images are testament to the already strong presence of native artists in Detroit doing the hard work of cleanup.

Exchange: Chicago-Detroit runs through 1/31 at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, 217 N. Carpenter.

Jason Foumberg is Chicago magazine’s contributing art critic. 

 

Photograph: Scott Hocking

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