Shrinking Cities 

The careful observer will notice, by looking up when walking through the courtyard of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, a small tree in a bubble sticking out from the side of the building. The tree, a “ghetto palm” fetched from the weed forests that have so virulently reclaimed the earth within the city limits of Detroit, was brought back to Berlin by artists Ingo Vetter and Annette Weisser, who included it in an installation they created for the recent Shrinking Cities exhibit.

Shrinking Cities closed in Berlin earlier this month after a successful eight-week run. An examination of four cities at varying levels of depopulation, the show featured multi-disciplinary methods and pop-cultural approaches. Despite having a gray, academic foundation, the show was streaked with colors provided by street philosophy and art brut credibility.

Detroit was the largest city studied, documented and reinterpreted. The others in the exhibit were the UK’s Manchester/Liverpool; Ivanovo, Russia; and Halle/Leipzig, Germany. Curator Philip Oswalt said the show was “not art, but a hybrid of science and art.” Among those who contributed to it show were geographers and social scientists, filmmakers and videographers, architects and designers, sculptors and painters. Oswalt called the show a success from an attendance and sales standpoint: For its first month, Shrinking Cities brought in 400 people a day, and more than 2,500 catalogs were sold.

The strength of the show lay in its presentation of the ravaging effects of history on industrial centers where manufacturing and production-based economies bloomed, withered and, well, remain in some degraded state of withering. Revealed was the sadness inherent in places that people have left behind. A funereal mist cloaked the four floors of Shrinking Cities, an appropriate ambience that shouldn’t be viewed as “negative” or “critical” in a way meant to injure or insult. The work was steeped in thought and action, with another phase to follow that will implement some solutions. One of its weaknesses was an overload of information that either drew you in with the gravity or uniqueness of its content, or left you disoriented and unable to navigate the historical pathways that brought each city into its present condition.

The Detroit gallery was bursting with graphic and sonic energy; by comparison, the Manchester/Liverpool floor seemed much less meaty, and top-heavy with information, fascinating as it all was, about the Acid House scene that rose and fell at the Hacienda nightclub in the 1980s and early ’90s. Shifts in race, culture and politics of the region were included, but only teased with informational fragments. The interested viewer begged for more dissolute voices from the street. The work from Ivanovo and Halle/Leipzig was an even harder sell, unless charts showing dropping birth rates and life expectancy were of special interest.

The story of Detroit’s decline was told using both familiar and unfamiliar language: images mixed with brief histories of Motown, the MC5 and techno music; the Heidelberg Project, Tyree Guyton’s notorious critique of neighborhood abandonment; and various banal references to cars and suburbanization.

The real power of the Detroit section was in its investigation of the people who live in a place where labor was first galvanized into one of the largest production forces the world has known, then systematically reduced to metaphoric rubble when less costly alternatives were found. Actual rubble, due to poverty and social unrest, soon followed. Also lending punch is the fact that Detroit once had a population of 2 million people (in 1950) and is now less than 1 million, and dropping.

Kelly Parker and Toni Moceri’s film, Coda: Motor City, drove home the message that someone living in a once working-class neighborhood who no longer works can’t get bus transportation to see a doctor. In another film called Moving Graves, Dan Pitera, Christopher Lee, Jody Huellmantel and Mitch Cope explored the phenomena of suburban families moving the remains of their loved ones from a Detroit cemetery, which they now considered too dangerous to visit, to one in “safer” Clinton Township. Equally powerful is a film by Kyong Park. His fiction piece, Detroit: Making it better for you, imagined the decline of Detroit and consequential suburbanization as a strategic plan hatched by the auto industry, real estate developers and the media.

Jeff Karolski contributed a cheeky “Devil’s Night Poster Series,” which engaged with its tone of gentle mockery: Clinton Snider’s painting, “Memorial,” depicted a single utility pole, surrounded by children’s toys, in a neighborhood where little else remains; and Christopher McNamara’s “Magic City” is a bizarre piece that featured two films going on simultaneously with a working pinball machine (a vintage 1967 game called “Magic City”) snuggled between. One film showed a sprinkler spraying water at the Windsor artist’s childhood home; the other was footage of the 1967 Detroit riot as seen on Canadian television. The work was candid, mysterious and emotionally rich.

For sheer inspired lunacy, however, Vetter and Weisser’s installation with the ghetto palm, called “Adaptation Laboratories #3,” had no peer.

The plant lived on exhaust air produced by a heating and cooling unit attached to the building. It fed off the water and electricity that circulated through the machine, which unwittingly offered itself up as a host for the parasitic tree from Detroit, where survival is not only limited to humans.

Shrinking Cities, which was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, is expected to travel to Düsseldorf, Moscow, Rotterdam and Bristol. Artist Mitch Cope, one of the Detroit curators of the event, said he wants to bring the show to Detroit. Plans for a local exhibition are already being discussed, Cope said, but he was tight-lipped about when and where.

Regardless, Detroit needs to see the show. It’s a vast hall of mirrors that frightens, angers and ultimately brings clarity to the successes and failures that have brought once-thriving cities like this one to the brink of oblivion.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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