The most famous work at the Detroit Institute of Arts is Diego Rivera’s series Detroit Industry Murals (1932-33) in the central courtyard of the museum. It refers to the early decades of the 20th century, now a distant memory, when the car industry was booming and workforces populated the factories. Looking at these murals now, one wonders what a contemporary artist would do if invited to make a piece to place at the heart of this museum. Would it be a landscape of decay and factory ruins? Would there be a view of a spacious city with a lot of green areas and the promise of a new economy and different future? Or would it be a mosaic of multiple, contradictory narratives?

Between 2007 and 2012, photographer Corine Vermeulen worked on the series Your Town Tomorrow. It started with her making explorations by bike after she first settled in Detroit. Vermeulen was fascinated by the green city landscape and how people started to develop urban farming after so many houses had come down. She talked to the residents of Detroit that she met on the road, later portraying them in her photographs. The availability of space made new forms of economy possible – an ecological and self-sustaining economy – against the backdrop of harsh poverty. In Vermeulen’s series, you get a sense of the diversity and creativity of the inhabitants in the city, even in difficult circumstances like these.

The Walk-in Portrait Studio, 2009-2014 Klinger Street, Detroit
Her interest in the people of Detroit also resulted in The Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009-2014). For this she used an empty house in Klinger Street, inviting locals to come in and get their picture taken. They received a print in exchange for telling a neighbourhood story.


The building on 3583 Dubois Street, Detroit, 2015 Photo: Jesper Bundgaard © Anders Ruhwald/Volume Gallery, Chicago
Artists have responded to the vacant houses and grounds in Detroit by buying and investing in property or by using places temporarily or by researching specific neighbourhoods and their dynamics. Anders Ruhwald bought a house on Dubois Street, at the fringe of the now-popular Eastern Market district. Inside he is working on a sculptural installation that transforms the rooms of an apartment into reflective spaces, departing from the material history of the house and its surroundings. The Detroit house – which will also contain a room for events, plus an artists’ residency – will be open to the public in the spring of 2017. Ruhwald says, “95-percent of all the buildings that used to surround the house are gone. Most of those areas are plots of grass with sidewalks, and the occasional fire hydrant. With this installation, I am interested in the transformation of the city as a conceptual driver. This lonely building used to be part of a thriving neighbourhood. Around it, a new neighbourhood will eventually grow again.” The house has been a model for Ruhwald’s current exhibition Unit 1: 3583 Dubois at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, where he included 200 window counter-weights hanging from the ceiling as a heavy reminder of past mechanisms. The exhibition is designed as a passage through different rooms that have been darkened by fire.


Unit 1: 3583 Dubois, 2016 Anders Ruhwald Installation view: Entrance hallway with window counter- weights, charred wood panelling, wooden candle holder Photo Jerry Birchfield / © MOCA Cleveland
Scott Lowe, co-founder and CTO of Castle, coding in bed Courtesy of Generation Startup
Theatre/performance ensemble The Hinterlands owns the Play House at the border of Hamtramck, a city within the city of Detroit. Nowadays a lot of artists have settled in this area, in-between immigrants from Poland, Yemen, and Bangladesh. From the outside, the Play House looks like a residential home, but inside, the floors and walls have been removed to create a theatre stage. In a play that ran in October, The Radicalization Process, three actors (Richard Newman, Liza Bielby and Dave Sanders, who also wrote the piece) discuss different forms of political awareness, theatre, and activity; or you could also say that they demonstrate their ideas through a mix of dialogue and physical action. The play starts in the cellar, where visitors are invited to browse through a found archive, stored in boxes, of clippings from the 1960s and 70s about such varied topics as Vietnam, Method Acting, Black Power, the New Left, and Imagination. Through this introduction, a transition is made between the reality of the location, American history, and the performance on stage. Actually, the audience is almost part of the play, as only 20 spectators can be seated on the floor where the actors perform. Thoughts about today’s polarised politics in the US are not far away while watching this play, which questions the ideals of 50 years ago.


The film Generation Startup had its local premiere this past autumn at the Detroit Film Theatre. The documentary, directed by Cheryl Miller Houser and Cynthia Wade, depicts a number of young entrepreneurs who have come to Detroit and are struggling to start their businesses. Among the companies portrayed is Castle, a tech-driven firm run by three guys providing maintenance services for homeowners. You see them inspecting run-down houses of the kind that are bought throughout Detroit, sometimes without the new owner ever having seen the property. Meanwhile, they’re working on their own acquired house, rebuilding it step by step, creating a space in which to live and work. The first winter is spent in tents inside the freezing-cold house. After some time, though, the company starts to be successful and the house is rehabilitated. Detroit, according to the documentary makers, “is a city that was founded on innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, and is seeing a renaissance because of it.”

There’s a lot of historic drama visible in Detroit, and it is tempting to draw conclusions from that. Yet the city is complicated and layered and cannot be read that easily. Even for the people living there, it’s hard to define the moment between bankruptcy and renaissance. What is clear, though, is that Detroiters are getting sick of one-sided representations of their city as an abandoned, picturesque ruin (there are actually 700,000 people living in Detroit). A look at some of the houses and the new ways of inhabiting them – through the works of artists and entrepreneurs – lends a glimpse into the vitality and imagination present in the city.

This article appeared in DAM59. Order your personal copy.
The Hinterlands: The Radicalization Process, 2016 Play House, Detroit Photo © Kat Schleicher
Jamal, 2011 From the series Your Town Tomorrow Photos © Corine Vermeulen
Ray Shawn and his uncle's van, 2011 From the series Your Town Tomorrow Photos © Corine Vermeulen