Eric Mesko, “The City” (detail) at Detroit Artists Market (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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 MarketThe 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.


Katie Grace McGowan, during her spoken word performance “Performance Capitalism and Its Discontents” at Detroit Artists Market

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.


Yvette Rock, “reDetroit” and “Tenuous Equilibrium: Metamorphosis” (2012–2015)

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. 

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

3 replies on “A Spoken-Word Artist Goes Behind the Scenes of Detroit’s Redevelopment”

  1. As per usual I am very grateful that you are doing so much writing about art in and around Detroit, especially since I’ve been out of the loop for the past year, but I think I need more specific information about “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.”

    How new is “new”? This year or the past five years or past decade(s)? What are the new galleries in Detroit besides Wasserman Projects (which is just relocating from Birmingham, and yes Wasserman was away from Detroit for a while making money, but…) I’m also curious about the “relatively closed system”: Mary Fortuna and I engaged in a discussion about the lack of a marketplace and outside attention for the Detroit art scene with panelists @ MoNA for the Detroit: Breeding Ground exhibition in 2009. We spoke of the irony of the lack of a robust art market & arts writing did leave Detroit-area artists “free” from having to make work “for” the market or “for” the critics. The freedom that comes from relative anonymity and unestablished economic value are not freedoms that I believe I want maintained for myself or my peers in the art scene here.

    “All who care about Detroit’s fundamental character and original occupants” I also don’t know if I can believe that there is a fundamental character to the city, and if there is one, it would have to be established through a historical lens, a history rife with “new money” setting up shop, changing the city’s landscape, benefiting financially and then getting the hell outta town leaving the rest of us to deal with the leftovers. If there is something fundamental to the city, it is the repeated ravages of capitalism and gentrification since day one of “Detroit” in the modern era. Which also begs the question: who counts as “original occupants”?

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