DETROIT — Detroit exists these days amidst a flurry of newcomer enthusiasm, rapid development, and media characterization that sometimes leaves longtime residents struggling to identify with the way “new Detroit” is being presented — and more importantly, packaged — for outside consumption. Even the art scene is experiencing a sea change, with new galleries, collectors, and curators coming in to set up camp in a landscape that has functioned as a relatively closed system for some time now. It is never comfortable to put a price on something you love, and this makes it an awkward moment for Detroiters who have always seen the value in this unique city to be told that it finally is regaining value, even as that “value” comes at the cost of some much-loved and longstanding city fixtures falling by the wayside — not to mention thousands of displaced residents struggling to hold their ground against a rising tide of foreclosures and water shutoffs.
All of this was encapsulated beautifully in a spoken word performance entitled “Performance Capitalism and Its Discontents” by Katie Grace McGowan, which acted as the centerpiece of a Detroiters-on-Detroit show currently running at the Detroit Artists Market. The Change We Want To See: Artists Reflect on Detroit is curated by Jeff Cancelosi, an artist in his own right, but better known as the guy with the camera who obsessively documents the majority of art openings in the city. With a bird’s-eye view rivaled by very few, Cancelosi has done a magnificent job of picking works that not only showcase Detroit’s diversity, but also highlight artists that who are using art to consciously question the identity of the city and the role that artists can play in shaping its future. This amounts to lots of portraiture, including more artists and subjects of color than one is typically apt to see in a Midtown gallery setting, as well as literal cityscapes, and works that speak more abstractly to Detroit’s layered circumstances.
As Cancelosi said in his introduction, McGowan’s performance really ties all these ideas together. In some ways, McGowan’s repartee — which mixed together headlines and media clips, personal anecdotes, and philosophical observations in a free form, but poetic structure — felt obvious. Within the assembled crowd, a lot of heads were nodding. But this obviousness is not the same as banality — like the best stand-up comics, McGowan speaks as a sort of conscience, telling things that we always know are true, but rarely deal with directly.
Of particular interest was her focus on commercial real estate, and her professional involvement with developers, who by now should be understood as the third horseman of gentrification. “Discover new opportunities in Midtown!” says McGowan, with exaggerated perkiness, reading from Requests for Proposals designed to bait new development. McGowan deals with her inherent conflicts of interest — she hates to see what investors are doing to Detroit, but she is also anxious to get as much information as possible about the market, buy whatever she can, and preserve some corner of the city for herself and her kind. Her exhortations to the crowd to learn about the development climate represent a kind of informed resistance that can only be borne of involvement with the opposition.
All who care about Detroit’s fundamental character and original occupants are eager to find ways to hold on to these aspects of the city, but few among this set are willing to do more than dig in heels and offer passive resistance or empty complaints. McGowan seems to be blazing an unsteady trail — speaking measures of truth to power in exchange for access to information, parlaying that information back to her community in the form of performance art — and perhaps in doing so, she forms an elusive middle path that can lead the way to greater awareness for all involved parties.
Katie Grace McGowan’s “Performance Capitalism and Its Discontents” took place on Thursday, September 17. The Change We Want To See: Artists Reflect on Detroit continues at Detroit Artists Market (4719 Woodward Ave, Detroit) through October 17.