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The Thing Hamburg


City of Hope - Opportunity in Crisis
Cultural initiatives, artists and institutions showed a lot of interest in the work of the Association for Contemporary Art Hamburg. In small informal meetings I explained the work and network of the association and thus got introduced into ideologies, principles, structures and subjects of interest of Detroit initiatives. Meeting up with members of the Hamburg association in the summer time 2009 was an excellent preparation. It helped to be able to understand the cultural production as well as its associated activities within the art scene in Detroit, whether or not they were driven by urban development or by a postindustrial understanding.

Outsiders and short time visitors often document and understand Detroit as: ruin, the place of decay of industrialism, the city of violence and extreme poverty. Citizens of the „D“ can’t do anything with these often-formulated stereotypes. An aesthetically beautiful staged ruin does not bring any income to the city. It does not make this particular location prettier in real life nor does it enrich the discourse about improvement of current living circumstances and living quality within its community. Many times interviewed locals or photographed Detroiters do not have the possibility or are enabled to see how their life and their city are presented to the outside. The repetition of stereotyped ruin images and negative samples of life styles in Detroit certainly forms the opinions of people outside that Detroit is lost. Many for example never came to visit the city or even chose to live outside of the city to not have to deal with its current state. Placing the mismanagement and the subsequent catastrophe in an aesthetic context romanticizes the idea of a long lasting downfall of a formerly glorified example of Modernity, Industrialization and a continuous economical growth. The rapid growing prosperity of Detroit, the affiliated mobility of the individual, but also racial interests and conflicts and others lead to a suburbanization of the inner city in only a short amount of time. Detroit shrank from about 2 million habitants in the 1950s to 1 million inhabitants in the year of 2000.

The image of Detroit I carry in my mind is that of a diverse and active city with potential and possibilities. Certainly various burned down houses, vacant lots within the city as well as badly asphalted roads, empty institutional building of the public sector such as schools and libraries and the nature that is taking over brown fields cannot be denied. But as in any other city the city center is intact with hotels, bars, casinos, clubs, restaurants, office spaces and temples of consumer culture. The city offers a vibrant mix in topography of newly built homes, office buildings, ruins and preserved housing stock. Moreover you can discover many architectural treasures, new developed areas (New City) as well as a large number of initiatives and citizens who do care and believe in the future of their city and seek the opportunity to build and preserve it with their own means and possibilities. Neighborhoods and communities are engaged and fight and stand in for the preservation of their city and lands. And others took the chance to redevelop abandoned areas into fertile farmland, „community spaces“ or „community gardens“.

„Detroit used to stand for success, and now it stands for failure. In that sense, the city is not just a physical location; it is also a project, a projection of imaginary fears and desires. This is the place where bad times get sent to make them belong to somebody else; thus, it seems easy to agree about Detroit because the city embodies everything the rest of the country wants to get over. But the same things that make Detroit immediately, if disagreeably, representative also make it very hard to know because the „truth“ about the place comes in prearranged form, often with little relevance to actual fact or feeling.“ (Source: Jerry Herron: After Culture. Detroit and the Humiliation of History, 1993, page 9)

Detroit is a city that does not only suffer from the downfall of the economy since 2008, but has been struggling since the last 30 years upon maladministration and financial decline. Therefore public money for education, innovative projects and missions for the future development of the city, the constitution of a public transport system or the support of cultural institutions is rare and almost not available. Many of the initiatives and institutions I visited stay alive through donations, the courage to proceed with innovative ideas, voluntary work and the absolute understanding not to rely on the city’s administration, but to be able to take responsibility as part of the community in the name of the community. Despite a lack of resources (materials, facilities, access) the Detroit artists and the ones that just moved to the city are engaged to improve the living qualities of their city and the advancement of their own creative outlet while linked to an international network of independent cultural production. The coalition of creatives, neighbors and colleagues within Detroit form, historically as well as today, a city of grassroots organizations and movements, specifically in the area of urban farming, alternative energy movements, digital education, architecture and design.

In her article – “Detroit: City of Hope. Building a sustainable economy out of the ashes of industry“ political activist and long term visionary Grace Lee Boggs states:

“Instead of trying to resurrect or reform a system whose endless pursuit of economic growth has created a nation of material abundance and spiritual poverty—and instead of hoping for a new FDR to save capitalism with New Deal-like programs—we need to build a new kind of economy from the ground up.” (Quelle:

In the Detroit art scene discourses about the social as well as the (infra-)structural development of the city, neighborhood immediacy and interdisciplinary networking (Art, Architecture, Design) is very relevant and practiced. The commercial art scene in Detroit, which is not very big, hardly has any influence on the development of the artists as well as their projects and methods of production.

„There’s an unofficial motto in Detroit:“ opportunity in crisis“. Out on the edge of destruction is where the emergence of resistance, transformation, and new life can start to take root. In The D we see self-reliant communities, urban farms, and innovative music rising up through the rubble of post-industrial disinvestment and abandonment.“ (INVINCIBLE, State of Emergency, 2008, EMERGENCE Media)


“Wir sind woanders” is an event format developed by the
Association for Contemporary Art Hamburg (VAKH)
It is supported by the Hamburg Ministry of Culture, Sports and Media (BKSM)


Field research in August, December 2009 and January 2010
City of Hope - Opportunity in Crisis
Design 99 + Hamburg suitcase
FILTER DETROIT, a house in Progress...

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