The Aftermath of a Motor City

Starting august 11 2011, the Artefacting team is collaborating with Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director of the renowned Detroit based Heidelberg Project, an open-air art environment in the heart of Detroit’s East Side. For 6 weeks, the Artefacting team is operating out of the Number House on Heidelberg Street from where they’ll reach out to neighboring communities to document and through public art engage the social pearls of an urban catastrophe following the aftermath of the Motor City.

The culminating event, Spire - A beacon of hope, was held at september 18th, 2011. Click here for more info on this community event

[TEAM] Alex White Mazzarella, Arne de Knegt
[COLLABORATING ARTISTS] Samuel Wells, Joao Henrique Brandao
[LOCAL PARTNER] Heidelberg Project, Joan Witte
[DATES] AUG 11 - SEP 23, 2011

Blog week 6: Artefacting’s Spire - Beacon of hope

The culminating event, Spire - A beacon of hope, was held at september 18th, 2011. Click here for more info on this community event

Blog week 4: We’re Artefacting in Detroit’s East Side

Text by Alex White Mazzarella, photos and videos by Arne de Knegt,

Week four in our process of Artefacting Detroit finds us shifting into full production mode. We’ve observed, engaged, listened and reflected on that around us in Detroit’s East Side. My sketchbook has been growing steadily with sketches and notes; an illustrative process of translating and communicating the experience of Detroit’s East side. Likewise, Arne’s photo archive and journal is thick in documentation of local life and phenomenon. Together we’ve spent countless hours challenging each other by testing assumptions, provoking stances and forcing justification for the statements we feel confident in making. We’ve reflected on the local people and how our intentions have been received. We’ve settled on a position to move forward with; a stance on our role in the community as we provoke engagement from the public through our art and documentation. Our actions serve as catalysts to bolster social change and community development by positively bringing people together in an inclusive and meaningful way.

We’ve received positive response from Helmut, Mr. Barksdale, Maurice, Miss. Lee, and other neighbors of the abandoned house that will be transformed into SPIRE on Sept. 18th. Everyone’s voiced words of appreciation towards this act designed to conduct peace, unity and positivity, and so we move forward with an act we deem as approved and fitting. Furthermore Tyree Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield, founders of the Heidelberg Project have responded to SPIRE by solidifying a Heidelberg Project/Artefacting partnership of using art to address social issues. In short there is great potential here.

And so the blueprints are being prepared and a supply of materials produced to put together the site of SPIRE ahead of our fast approaching Sept. 18th act. Arne took the first step this morning locating a nearby source of wood, and Maurice, a neighbor working on rehabbing an abandoned house into a store is eager to help out with his tools. Maurice and Tyree see the direct connection between SPIRE and the business Maurice is working towards generating… whether it is via an increase of visitors to the area or a force of positivity that can boost the hope and therefore security of the neighborhood.

Arne finding wood

And in conjunction with SPIRE, a concept based on exhibiting some regenerative capacities of human (peace, compassion, strength and wisdom), comes a series of work that speaks towards a juxtaposition of nature’s powerful regenerative capacity (through its four elements) and an inner city population struggling to reshape itself. The first of which is WINDPOWER.


Blog week 3: Stagnation Metamorphosis

Industrial Chimes

Text by Alex White Mazzarella, photos and videso by Arne de Knegt, Detroit August 29, 2011:
In these last weeks we’ve been asking why. Why the stagnation. Why the division Why the segregation. Why not the transformation? What is it that is obstructing a resurgence of the inner city people and neighborhoods hit hardest by Detroit’s steady decline and abandonment. Of course there was the abandoning flight of the white population 8 or more miles out from the city, but what has kept back the inner city’s (predominantly African-American) population? People have been chiming in with open voices; conversations around tables, on street corners, and at community events telling us why, but also telling us what is being done (or not done) to address them.

Shane, a Detroit native and leader at the Earthworks Urban Gardens organization, voices a situation that has crystallized to us over these three weeks… “There’s a lack of tax base to support ourselves, no jobs. But there remains the basic needs… to feed ourselves… for communities to exist… to go from our history of industry and economic privileges to an economy of people built on social capital… a need to address systemic issues of power and privilege to feed a structure of racism, disparity and inequality and a need to confront a power structure in the community that is not equal.”

Valid strong words from a man devoted to seeing his work through; strong efforts in restoring social justice and food sovereignty an bringing the community together to meet their needs together… His words are immediately in tune with what we have felt out in conversations with locals in predominantly African-American neighborhoods; testimony to a citizen mindset over-structured and inhibited by social, economic, and racial divides and distractions; a mentality and scarring that is in this context an impediment to the regenerative spirit.

Walking through the Packard Plant’s ruins and abandonment we navigate through a wealth of the past and spectacle of today; a landscape of bricks, smashed concrete and metal; dormant or obsolete resources. Mounds of materials amidst looming walls sit stagnant while clanking signals a few pieces of iron rebar being reclaimed by two old men, fighting to fit them into a shopping cart and cash them in for whatever. It’s a heaviness and idleness that is equally descriptive of the people around; individuals with no jobs or direction, and many fully settled into a welfare reality of handouts, a far cry from self-sustainability.

Electric Storm

But there alongside the bruised bricks of that Packard plant is nature, generating surprisingly, creatively and steadily. Weeds, plants and even trees emerge from cracks, even from the mixed rock of rubble. Overhead an ominous fast moving sky erupts with lightning that dances across and animates a dormant landscape. In just a flash nature unfolds its power, unifying millions of otherwise idle electrons and protons to create. Its static energy and booming volume filling the ruins like an exorcism. Simply lightning from charged energy. A few days later we return to the Packard Plant and find a carcass of metal that chimes to life like a ritual, with just the addition of a little bit of energy; generating from the degenerate.

If nature can at once unify to boom its collective energy than why can’t humans? In Shane’s words he suggest that we look towards a shared economy and shared success: that we look at a model where it doesn’t matter who you are where you come from, just like those protons and neutrons… a community where everyone can come together and share in a collective effort of healing and success no matter how you define it or express it, individually or collectively. We take these words further declaring that it is divisions and race class & power type of thinking that stands between the abandoned people of Detroit and regeneration.

There is no intrinsic reason why human should not regenerate like nature, but indeed perhaps a metamorphosis is in order for transformation. “Cultural metamorphosis refers to the major and subtle changes that occur within a society… Culture has to do with the beliefs of the people, which may be tangible or intangible.” (an excerpt from an African Anthropological Case Study )

We’ve catalyzed the community into a metamorphosis of sorts; openly collecting from the ruins and even scars of the past, to also generate from the degenerate. Soon debris will be turned into loot through an assembly from a common energy. Indeed on September 12 the community will come together to present “SHELTER” from ashes and ruins. Here are clips of our first days gathering building materials

Gathering the Loot

Moving the Loot

On Sept 18, Artefacting’s culminating “SPIRE” will prove what happens when a collective regeneration replaces racial, class & economic divides… proving that these are indeed not obstacles when a common objective and unity overrules the difference and divide.

Transforming a Haunted House

Two Pillars

Blog week 2: Talking Transformation

Alex White Mazzarella, Detroit August 22, 2011

  • Alex & Marcel redo the ceiling
    Alex & Marcel redo the ceiling
  • Joao Marcel & Marcela
    Joao Marcel & Marcela
  • Joao looks for leaks
    Joao looks for leaks
  • Marcela measures up
    Marcela measures up
  • Joao painting with the kids
    Joao painting with the kids
  • Marcela polka dots a brick
    Marcela polka dots a brick

As the Number House continues to transform… fresh floors, patched up walling, and fresh paint, we turn to the Motor City which is beginning to take on meaning. Yes the American car is the dominant make around us, but here in the “Hope District” as they call the surrounding neighborhood, Motor City now means universal unemployment, widespread welfare and sheer idleness. Everyone is waiting for those auto industry jobs to come back, but Mike, the leader of our partner organization the Friends of Detroit, recites a vision shared by many others; that the Motor City is never coming back.

The very entrepreneurial spirit and organizational capacity that Detroit was built on fled long ago along with the factories & paychecks. Left intact however is a culture and mentality of hierarchy, fabrication and manufacturing, fit for production but not that which today’s Detroit beckons; TRANSFORMATION. Our surroundings are indicative of the community’s current state; abandoned and torched houses that seem to outnumber those occupied by 2 to 1, and people seemingly also abandoned, sitting idle on the corner or on their porches some drinking alcohol at mid-day. But within this challenging landscape we have found our “pearls” as Arne calls them: small groups coming together to regenerate to transform.

  • One way exit
    One way exit
  • Car psyche
    Car psyche
  • Abandoned auto assembly track
    Abandoned auto assembly track
  • Embedding fear
    Embedding fear
  • Resting idle
    Resting idle
  • Down and out
    Down and out
  • Looking out from the inside
    Looking out from the inside

Willie, an ex-auto worker, is now the leader of an Urban Greenhouse project. “I abandoned my 25 year-old drug habit and turned to nature”, he tells us as he directs volunteers to pick the recent squash, cucumber and tomato harvest; vegetables to be cooked next door for a hundred or so hungry mouths at Capuchin’s Soup Kitchen. And he speaks of other shining opportunity in Detroit, $200 plots of land, and exhibits a visionary thinking in his exclamation to supporters… “you want to help, than get us a tractor and you’ll see what we’ll accomplish!”

Indeed it’s hard to miss the burgeoning opportunity that abounds… a silence, only broken by the sound of crickets and few cars, that sweeps over surrounding urban prairie. Listening to community groups its’ clear what’s possible… a transformation of rubble into farms, renovation, money and well being. And with this in mind we begin our discussions with 20 or so Hope District individuals; people who come to the Friends of Detroit for support, positivity, to use a computer, get a hot meal, or simply because they have nothing else to do.

From the table we hear more stories of the past, stories of that Motor city hay day, when block parties, neighborliness, jobs and money was the norm around the Hope District, now absent and even replaced by an individualism, violence and fear that owns people’s psyche. And so we began to dig in, asking critical questions about the transformation the community envisioned and what we heard was widespread; a need for creativity, entrepreneurship and togetherness; ingredients imperative to a strong community, essential to spurn a comeback.

  • Natural Arising
    Natural Arising
  • Urban Arising
    Urban Arising
  • Nature regenerating
    Nature regenerating
  • Ashes to Ashes
    Ashes to Ashes
  • Transforming for a new way
    Transforming for a new way

Arne and I returned again on Friday to dig deeper and hear what people need now, to take that next step forward. And from a table full of initially dormant and inattentive faces arose an impressive energy. The table eventually hummed to a passionate dialogue on what togetherness and community can really means and why its’ so imperative to be restored.
One mid-aged woman rose to lead the way speaking about togetherness from experience and observation… “There are a lot of mental people I know who can’t get together with people because of being mental. And maybe what you couldn’t do before you can now because of being back with your family, your neighbors, not using drugs, or getting it together by helping other people, going to school.“
  • Alex gives a hand with the Urban Garden harvest
    Alex gives a hand with the Urban Garden harvest
  • Mike of Friends of Det. and Arne talk community efforts
    Mike of Friends of Det. and Arne talk community efforts
  • Volunteers helping out with Heidelberg's "Streetfolk"; public art to inspire hope
    Volunteers helping out with Heidelberg's "Streetfolk"; public art to inspire hope
  • A community group sketches ideas for togetherness
    A community group sketches ideas for togetherness
  • Some write down visions, others actions
    Some write down visions, others actions

We heard that being together is a shelter and “if you didn’t have a shelter you wouldn’t have a mind, and you wouldn’t be alive. If you don’t have a mind, you can’t think and you’re not going to live.” “My main reason for being alive, is being together… together I can meet other people, raise children, and get on that bus to go once I get that thought together.”
As strong words about the power of community and togetherness pour out, we start to brainstorm ideas of action that could help catalyze and manifest the collective voice and direction we so heard so clearly. Yet it is not our place, not our culture and not our history. And so we continue to listen, taking notes, processing and moving.
Our list of volunteers is growing as we narrow down what we will catalyze, and our thinking evolves as we submerge deeper into the story that is today’s Detroit.

Back at the Number House, the Ivy League Crew play their tunes and spoken word to the backdrop that is the Heidelberg Project.

  • Ivy League Crew performs at the Number House
    Ivy League Crew performs at the Number House
  • Detroit
  • Jenenne and Tyree, Founders of the Heidelberg Project
    Jenenne and Tyree, Founders of the Heidelberg Project
  • Visitors from all over take in Heidelberg St.
    Visitors from all over take in Heidelberg St.
  • Tyree's polka-dot and visitors
    Tyree's polka-dot and visitors
  • On Heidelberg St listening to spoken word
    On Heidelberg St listening to spoken word
  • Joao watches the Number House turned theatre
    Joao watches the Number House turned theatre
  • Antoine, pet of Ivy Crew and the bassist
    Antoine, pet of Ivy Crew and the bassist

Blog week 1

Alex White Mazzarella, August 15, 2011: Greetings from Detroit, where the Artefacting Team is settling into the Number House… the home and base to our 6-week community arts operation. Here’s the recap of where we are and how we got here.

Team members Joao & Alex flew in from New York City with Arne bussing in from Toronto. United at the offices of our local partner the Heidelberg Project, we sat down with founder Tyree Guyton and his staff for an uplifting talk, setting our Artefacting initiative into motion. And on we went towards Heidelberg Street, the epicenter of Tyree’s 25 year-old living art museum; a place responsible for inspiring and sustaining a community.

  • Abandon
  • Lightning over the Hood
    Lightning over the Hood
  • Detroit fast food
    Detroit fast food

Photos by Arne De Knegt

We drive through Detroit on its’ massive roads seemingly as wide as rivers, sparse with cars and with unmistakable surroundings: buildings and houses that one time felt the lifeblood of a burgeoning urban organism now empty, deteriorating and waiting to feel life once again. Some houses are giving way to a natural reclamation of vines and vegetation. Some houses exhibit charred facades and roofs. The remnants of a Motor City long-gone, and the open wounds from the 1967 riots, still open after 44 years. Disbelief arises. Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima and Rotterdam all recovered from worse to shine anew. What happened to Detroit? But arriving at Heidelberg Street these questions make room for others.

  • The open art museum that is the Heidelberg Project
    The open art museum that is the Heidelberg Project
  • Looming over Heidelberg St.
    Looming over Heidelberg St.
  • Debris reborn on Heidelberg St.
    Debris reborn on Heidelberg St.

Colorful and eccentric landscapes of public art force another curiosity of a different intrigue. Trees filled with stuffed animals and rotating mirrors reflect light… streets, panels and houses of colorful polka dots checker the landscape… shoes dangle from branches, and car hoods and autobodies turned sculpture emerge from lawns and houses.
Amanda our Heidelberg assistant stops the car at what is known as the Number House… a place covered in colorful numbers painted by the community to honor the original inhabitant; a woman simply infatuated with numbers. Amanda turns the house key and we enter. Its bare but coming along. A few repainted rooms shine with white paint and exhibit children’s paintings and the colorful chalk writings of the many visitors that enter the house every week. Scripture in German, Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese, Dutch& Russian; these are messages that come from all over. The rest of the house however is in tough shape and we immediately begin to clear out debris, dust and cobwebs.

  • Joao & Arne get started on the Number House
    Joao & Arne get started on the Number House
  • Number House morning
    Number House morning
  • Vintage bicycle mobility @ Third Ave. Hardware with George & Shane
    Vintage bicycle mobility @ Third Ave. Hardware with George & Shane
  • Alex & Joao with a special visitor Pullitzer Prize winner Nick Ut
    Alex & Joao with a special visitor Pullitzer Prize winner Nick Ut
  • Joao drives thru
    Joao drives thru

With no electricity or water we spend the first days identifying solutions. Candles, a donated mattress, a borrowed gas stove, and a water source next door. Soon the shower is created in the back, and a dining area established to finally cook a hot meal. Steps are constructed in the backyard and vintage bicycles acquired for mobility from George’s local hardware store. Empty jars and containers turned into coffee cups. These are all first steps to rehabbing this space into a place suitable to hosting community artists, exhibitions and community functions/events… another Heidelberg community resource.
The Heidelberg Project catalyzes community organization, cohesion and development through art by instilling hope, support and positivity that gets children to college instead of drugs. Volunteers replace debris with gardens and neighbors cut the grass. Educational art courses see local children create art inspired by Tyree’s Folk Art. Tyree is a legend of sorts in the surrounding communities, with his success leaving many open to further engagement.

And so we venture out to meet the surrounding communities with an eye towards spreading Heidelberg’s proven healing powers via Artefacting workshops and community service. There is Mike of the Hope District desperately trying to spurn entrepreneurship and a sense of community without help & Shannon who is just getting a nearby Community Center up and running to serve a people thick in crime and negativity in need of a positive togetherness. And there is Vincent & Otis amongst others that we greet on the streets and later plunge into personal conversations, stories and histories.
Alas we return home to find Marcel and Marcela, local children eagerly waiting to jump on us with a warm embrace and draw us into a game or some other distraction from the challenges they face at home. They tire us out growing rambunctious and we show them the door

  • David, Heidelberg St. resident
    David, Heidelberg St. resident
  • Marcela
  • Gathering at the Number House
    Gathering at the Number House
  • Marcela strikes a pose on a polka dot
    Marcela strikes a pose on a polka dot

Yet another night and Arne, Joao and I fill the dark candle & street lit space with conversation, planning and sense making. All it takes is a few words of ghosts, a reflection on a nearby house, dead like its murdered owners, and the reading of a dark quote off the wall and our friendly Number House feels like a haunted house.
We lay our heads down to rest… to the steady sounds of crickets and sirens and the soft blue glow of the GMC towers looming light overhead onto what is the aftermath of a Motor City.