DETROIT — “There’s something weirdly comforting about knowing there’s a load of cities in the world that are in the same situation,” said Chloë Brown, who took a moment away from installing her multimedia piece, “Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up)” (2013) to speak with Hyperallergic about the resonance between Detroit and the post-industrial city of Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom. Brown’s piece is a film shot in Stoke-on-Trent’s abandoned Spode factory, once the economic powerhouse of the blue-collar working town, and maker of the iconic Blue Willow dinnerware that is collected worldwide. The short weaves together Stoke-on-Trent’s economic collapse and resulting industrial ruins, and ends with a kind of redemption by way of Northern Soul dancing.
Dancing in the Boardroom is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of the winter program for the DEPE Space Residency. But Brown, who is an artist-researcher, considers this work part of a much larger contribution to Topographies of the Obsolete, an ongoing research project among Northern European art schools, started by the Bergen Art Academy (KHIB), which examines the cultural fallout in areas of economic collapse. Brown describes cities like Stoke-on-Trent as, “being in the grips of becoming post-industrial, whereas Detroit has been in the process for a while,” but does not struggle to draw connections between the two. In fact, in 2015, she decided to push her project to the next level by gathering research in Detroit, which manifests elsewhere in the exhibit.
Brown was initially drawn to the “extraordinarily beautiful decay” of the Spode factory, which closed in 2008, and, like many facilities in Detroit today, was abandoned full-stop in the middle of an active day, leaving fixtures and objects in place, Christmas decorations struggling to hold cheer within the gloom, and cups of tea now grassy with mold — a picture without people that verges on the apocalyptic. Brown, however, quickly discarded this initial aesthetic fascination with the space, identifying it as “too superficial, too ruin-porny.” And indeed, her establishing shots indulge in the bare minimum of such explorations, before quickly cutting to the main event: a dance performance that takes place in what was once the boardroom and crown jewel of the Spode factory.
But let’s back up for a moment. Northern Soul is a dance tradition that arose in the mid-1960s, driven by working-class, young white people like those who worked the line at the Spode factory. With cultural roots in the skinhead movement (though a separate strain than that which is associated with White Power politics), Northern Soul dance parties allowed workers to throw off the shackles of their repetitious work week, as cogs in the industrial machine, with all-night dance parties fueled by amphetamines and a particular type of music that coalesced in the wake of the Motown sound. Sound familiar, Detroit?
“Is it a bit literal to be thinking of Detroit?” Brown reflected on her process for the film, after working intermittently for two years in Stoke-on-Trent. “Because I’m interested in post-industry, and it’s the poster child. But in the end it made sense, considering the history of soul music — and Northern Soul in particular — comes from Detroit.”
The DJs who pioneered the Northern Soul movement came directly to Detroit to seek out the very particular type of sound suited to their needs: small pressings of commercial failures from little recording studios trying to follow the Motown Records approach and capture the sound that had captivated the world. Consigned to obscurity in warehouses, these records found an unlikely fan base in the Northern Soul scene, where their rarity, and the very rawness of their failure, created an aura of authenticity that garnered a highly devoted response in the blue-collar British youth of the rapidly industrializing United Kingdom.
Fast forward in time. All grown up, Peter and Susan Davies, original scenesters from the height of Northern Soul, are still dancing out their devotion in an abandoned boardroom below a dusty crystal chandelier and on ornate parquet wooden floor. Brown’s decision to stage this two-person dance party was quite deliberate; of all the places in the Spode factory, the boardroom was a place where workers were forbidden. It was a showroom for clients and bigwigs, displaying all the finest products available for purchase, and lavishly appointed to make the best impression. It also has, according to Pete, an ideal floor for dancing. Wearing worker denims and soft shoes, the now 60-year-old king of the scene wheels around unselfconsciously and somewhat discordantly. His oversize pants and active arms bring to mind some of the hallmarks of rave culture — another tradition developed in Detroit that grew in this hardworking factory town. Sue, with her brightly dyed and cropped hair, star-studded jumper, and long, twirling skirt looks somewhere between punk club and sock hop. The pair is the go-to authority on Northern Soul, turning up in documentaries, and dance with determination and self-assurance, if not joy.
Somewhat more joyous are the six subjects of the companion video, also on view at MOCAD, which Brown made during her visit to Detroit. Recruited in an open call through Craigslist, Brown filmed six (mostly white) Detroiters dancing from Alfred Street to Temple Street, Detroit. Unheard to the viewer, but playing on musical devices, is Martha Reeves & the Vandellas breakout hit, “Dancing in the Street” (“A bit on the nose? I know,” Brown editorializes), which is also the title of the two-minute and forty-second film (the length of the song). This song was released in the same week as the 1967 Rebellion, which is considered a crucial turning point in race relations and civil liberties, and a challenge to the systems maintaining a stranglehold on power and control in Detroit. Just as the disrupted space of the Spode factory now allows for dancing in the boardroom, the disruption of 1960s Detroit has triggered a chain of events and economic collapses resulting in a city so decentralized that six dancers have basically the run of the city streets for their dance floor.
Like the Spode factory, this collapse represents a certain degree of failure and strife, but also allows for the opening of new possibilities. The Detroit dancers end up on the stairs of the Masonic Temple, a towering monolith that still holds the vestiges of what Brown considers a kind of elite patriarchal society that has long controlled the flow of finance and societal power. Accompanying the video piece is a 30-foot scroll-like drawing made by Brown, “From Alfred Street to Temple Street” (2015), that meticulously displays the entire urban landscape of her dance route.
The simplicity of Brown’s videos and drawings belie the deep consideration and work she has done to uncover connections between Detroit and Stoke-on-Trent, and to generate a sense of celebration for the change that rides along in the wake of great disruption. “You lose the reason for being,” says Brown, “there’s a genuine period of confusion, and then out of that confusion, that emptiness, things start to happen. And the things that start to happen are largely creative.” With the fall of one structure comes trauma and hardship, but also comes the hope of freedom — perhaps artists, more than anyone, are keenly equipped to seize upon that freedom, and make a dance of it.
Chloë Brown: Dancing in the Boardroom continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) (4454 Woodward Ave, Detroit) through April 24.
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