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Reed's Detroit series on the north wall at DeVos Place
The philosopher William James once wrote that it is important to ask not what reality is, but “under what circumstances do we think things are real?” That question came to mind when viewing Ludington artist Ryan Spencer Reed’s photographic suite “Detroit Forsaken.” The piece, which consists of a series of photographs of Detroit ruins, is haunting and well executed. But it is also problematic — not for what aspects of reality are present but for what is conspicuously absent.
I walked into DeVos Place on my quest to see all of the pieces in the top 10 when I stumbled upon Reed’s piece. As a longtime Detroitophile, the images of crumbling façades and eerily empty spaces were familiar. Photographing Detroit’s urban decay has long been a popular sport for a certain cadre of urban spelunkers. Digital artist Lowell Boileau’s “Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” website, launched in 1996, was an early and successful use of the web to create an interactive work of conceptual art. But along with images of nature’s reclamation of empty structures, Boileau created an active online community that engages in the painful dialogue between disparate members of the Detroit diaspora — those who still live there, and those whose Detroit exists only in fond memories of Hudson’s and rides on the Bob-Lo boat.
But unlike Boileau’s work, Reed’s photographs suffer from a lack of humanity. “Nearly devoid of the human form, these images capture the aftermath of unsustainable business practices,” he wrote in his artist statement. In a conversation, Reed told me that his work critiques America’s “misspent youth,” which he described as the rampant and unsustainable consumerism and lack of leadership and vision in the post WWII world. But by focusing on the economic and industrial angle, Reed neglects both the human toll and the human aspirations of Detroiters (that’s not a critique that can be leveled at the artist’s work in Darfur, by the way. Those images are filled with compassion and empathy).
The real consequence of the lack of humanity in Reed’s Detroit work, though, played out in the discourse of the people walking by. Standing there and listening in, one heard wistful memories and disgust over the demise of the Detroit of yesteryear, but little concern about the 875,000 people who are still there. The work seemed to fetishize artifacts from the past like the Michigan Central Depot or Tiger Stadium while ignoring the flesh-and-blood Detroiters who believe in the city’s motto of "Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus" (“We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes”).
Reed said several times that his intention was not to kick a city while it’s down, and there’s no reason to question that intention. However, it is completely reasonable to question whether the effect of the work does just that. The depopulation of Detroit and the abandoned buildings that phenomenon brought with it is real, but it is not the only story that there is to tell. However, it is the tired old story that Reed chose to retell.
Does an artist have a responsibility for the discourse his or her art inspires? I would suggest that when an artist creates a work as political as Reed’s, the answer is yes. Yet, unfortunately, that is a responsibility the artist shrugs off.
I'm not naive here -- Detroit has challenges, and some of Reed's critiques may have value. But in the 1970s, Emily T. Gail launched a campaign to encourage people to "Say Nice Things About Detroit." That doesn't seem like such a bad idea here.
Brian J. Bowe is a visiting assistant professor of journalism in Grand Valley State University's School of Communications. He is also a doctoral student in Michigan State University's Media and Information Studies program. Bowe has published several books, including biographies of Judas Priest, The Ramones and The Clash. He has also written liner notes for releases by Iggy & the Stooges and Was (Not Was).
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