Friday, September 23, 2011

Can Outsiders Contribute New Ideas to the City?

 Installation at Bring It Fest, Flint, MI. 

In the initial months of the Flint Public Art Project's launch, we put the premise to the test that the city of Flint could potentially be transformed by exchanges with visiting artists, architects and designers with specialized knowledge from elsewhere. We encountered instances of skepticism and mistrust, to be sure--a hillbilly squatting a former fire station on Grand Traverse almost immediately threatened us. Members of the City Council were up in arms for months, after we installed a dozen dancers and forty multicolored theatrical lights in a condemned highrise tower. But we found dozens of local artists eager to participate, businesses grateful for the new customers we attracted, and residents energized by new blood, another perspective, and a different way of thinking about public art.

The sustainability of the project and its potential for far-reaching effects remains to be proven. We did generate enough support to give rise to several ongoing platforms for engagement with the city. This fall a series of events will be independently produced by our counterparts in Flint in correspondence with downtown ArtWalks, using very limited resources. Responding to the ongoing demand for this kind of work, the group will carry on the call for new-genre public art in the city. They will be presenting the project at various schools as well as at TEDxFlint in October.

We are also working with a landscape architecture master's studio on Flint at the City College of New York led by Denise Hoffman Brandt, whose forthcoming City-Sink book investigates the potential of urban ecological systems to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Eight students--a wonderful group of people from disparate places and prior specializations--will propose site-specific interventions for the city after examining existing plans, reports, and data, and documenting the condition of the river, brownfields, housing, vacant lots, parks, roads, bike trails, and transitional spaces. The studio just returned from a week-long tour to gather information, meet with city officials and community leaders, and visit neighborhoods.

We traveled around the city in cars, on bikes, and by foot, specked out sprawling industrial lots (and were entertained by guards who made fun of us by imitating New York accents), visited the graffiti-inspired Bring It Fest in Kearsley Park, went on tours of GM's Truck and Bus Flint Assembly and the Chevrolet brownfield, met with Mayor Dayne Walling, Genesee County Land Bank director Doug Weiland, Green City Administrator Steve Montle, Flint Urban League director Lorna Latham, Farmer's Market director Dick Ramsdell, Joel Rash of Local 432, planning commissioner Freeman Greer, and urban farming specialists Joanna Lerman and Stephen Arellano. The conflicting facts, interests, conditions, and arguments presented during the tour and meetings brought together a complex tableau of the Flint scene, an incredible challenge to the designers to produce propositions that can be of use and mediate in a contested environment.

Is the Land Bank hoarding property and discouraging neighbors, community gardeners, and ordinary citizens from taking ownership of tax-foreclosed lots, or is it desperately trying to stabilize more than 10,000 parcels, accumulating funds to demolish thousands of homes that are beyond repair, keeping the city from looking like an abandoned wasteland, and experimenting with a new strategy of revaluing occupied homes by turning whole blocks into fields of wildflowers?

Is urban farming a meaningful and economical solution to restoring value to property, building community, providing equitable food access, teaching kids, and creating a green economy, or is it a boondoggle that will always depend on unsustainable subsidies and a waste of resources in a distressed terrain surrounded by cheap land and small family-owned farms?

Is the revitalized downtown strip a successful story of reinvestment in the city of Flint, preservation of its landmark buildings and historic center, and the beginning of turn-around in the financial outlook for the city, or is it an upper middle-class haven inaccessible to its poorest residents and disconnected from surrounding neighborhoods that are in greater need of capital investment?

How much should the new master plan focus on detailed data analysis and community meetings enabling residents to shape the city, and how much should it draw on the expertise and visionary ideas of outsiders utilizing the best ideas and practices in circulation around the world?

These questions will be examined in an effort to introduce meaningful proposals drawing on innovative practices in the field of landscape architecture. Later in the fall, we'll participate in a public exchange at City College about the project and its relationship to proposals for retrofitting suburbia. We will review the students' projects, later to be presented publicly and shared with leaders of the planning process and institutions in Flint.

Another master's architecture studio at the University of Michigan is being led by Nahyun Hwang, former senior designer at James Corner Field Operations and project architect of the High Line. The U of M studio takes Flint as a springboard for examination of Geographies of the Corporation and institutions that can serve its needs. A discussion of the studio is being planned at the Van Alen Institute at the end of the term.

In the next six weeks, Berlin-based artist Catherine Grau is planning a trip to Flint to produce a self-organized project with local cultural producers. Grau will develop contacts with urban gardeners and farmers, cultural producers and institutions, organize inexpensive group dinners and free discussions, and experiment with new ways to catalyze engagement with the city. Take a look at her project in Weimar, Germany in which she and her group created a Kiosk of Contemporary Art, using a street-corner kiosk to stimulate creative energies and public life in an area of the city, KoCA Inn (PDF).

Conceptual drawing for Genesee Towers, Thaddeus Pawlowski

A number of other proposals are on file by artists and designers including Deborah Gans, Farrah Karapetian, Raphaele Shirley, NSUMI, Nuit Blanche New York, Tamara Leacock, Thaddeus Pawlowski and David Cook, Public Workshop, Hungry March Band, Magda Biernat, Sean Hemmerle, Michael Ramsdell, Dave Johnson, Pharlon Randle, Janet Haley, and Freeman Greer. Many others in Flint, New York and Los Angeles continue to develop proposals and plans to implement them.

Last week, New York-based visiting artist Mary Gagler presented her painting and linocut of the Genesee Towers in an exhibition that opened at the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey. Her statement on the work, installed in a gallery and art school in her home town, suggests how projects in Flint can have a resonance with other places and inspire visiting artists as much as residents of the city of Flint.

The Flint Public Art Project provides a plan for a culturally invigorated Flint, Michigan. Flint residents are game for this transformation and hundreds showed their support by attending the inaugural event for the project on July 8, 2011.

When the city was flush, flowing capital gave rise to businesses and buildings such as the Genesee Towers depicted here. This office building was unused for years until the electricity was turned on for a day, during which volunteers installed colored theater lights in the windows and a local dance troupe performed for the audience on the street.

It had been a while since I left New York, with its vibrant, self-accrediting art scene. I had forgotten that art serves a purpose outside of decorating walls, that it can actually give form to an idea. In this case, an idea shared by a whole community. Sure, there were disagreements about the particulars--is it safe? If somebody gets hurt while putting on a project in a condemned building owned by the city, won't the city face major lawsuits? But then there was the best question of them all--what if it goes well? If everyone watches out for themselves, and tiptoes around the broken glass and ceramics in the banquet hall to install lights in the windows, and the dancers are led by dedicated volunteers through the abandoned office space, then maybe all participants will emerge unscathed, and the public will have seen something they were hoping for; a public building put to good, imaginative use.

This embrace of an empty building for public use reminds the artist of a similar history… a hundred year old Baptist church that was transformed into a cultural art center in Demarest, NJ…