Better than Christo

Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

A few weeks ago, with wet and dirty rags, men washed graffiti from the windows of the abandoned United Artists building in Detroit's Grand Circus Park. Nobody protested, and, for the most part, the media ignored it. But, to many, the Ilitch family ruined the one real tourist attraction downtown. The signs of life on that 77-year-old former theater were a result of a collaborative effort, proving what the artists' community really means in Detroit.

According to Karen Cullen, vice president of corporate communications for Ilitch Holdings Inc., the decision was made in an effort to entice prospective developers. "A few weeks ago, we reached an agreement to partner with the city on co-marketing the site," she says. "Our main goal is to get a viable operating business there. We know there are two points of view, that some people saw it as art, and we can understand that. But others thought of it as graffiti. In order to make it more marketable, we thought it best to remove it."

It seems that Ilitch Holdings Inc. believes graffiti and art are not one and the same, which makes one wonder: Where's their sense of urbanity? Just in time for Super Bowl XL, they've plastered the United Artists building, as well as other nearby sites, with billboard advertisements featuring eye-catching graphics of phone numbers and corporate logos.

Metro Times decided to ask artists how they would envision the city if they could have their own field day. In response, creative types thought up a lot of ways to be activists. One artist wants to pass out a flier to citizens of Detroit (forget the tourists!) that reads: "You can't dump an old refrigerator off in the nearest vacant lot. You shouldn't dump that torn-up golf bag in the middle of the street. You really ought not leave that old sofa seat by the curb four blocks away from where you live. Thank you." Artist Billy O'Bryan suggested "guerrilla theater, in the streets, a riot," and others recommended dancing on the grave of Motown corporate headquarters.

Last spring, Cranbrook graduate Jeff Sturges lit up the long-abandoned Highland Park Ford Administration Building on Woodward Avenue, proving how beautiful a building could be when it shines. Going along with that same concept, he says for the Super Bowl he would light up every beautiful, abandoned edifice within 25 miles of the stadium. "I would illuminate their exterior details, and then see what I could do to give life to the interiors as well. Then, all we would need are some new industries! For the train station, all I need is a week of prep, and roughly $5,000."

Some artists, such as Dan DeMaggio, just used the proposition as a way to spout off about the city. And others, such as Maurice Greenia Jr., saw it as an opportunity to collect their thoughts on vague plans they've had for a long time. Greenia says that ever since the Hudson building's demolition, he's wanted to fill the entire space with thousands of balls — golf balls, tennis balls, footballs, toy balls, baseballs, croquet balls, billiard balls, bowling balls, giant balls, beach balls, cricket balls, basketballs and soccer balls. Greenia had another good idea:

"Robert Graham's sculpture of Joe Louis's fist could lead to a new Detroit tradition. Throughout the downtown area we could install a series of large sculptures known as Body Parts of Great Detroiters. He wants us to imagine running into a larger-than-life foot, elbow, finger, knee, toe, nose, eye, belly, chest, neck, back, armpit, chin, cheek or head of hair. "You could have a big ear. If someone never or rarely shaved, you could show their beard." Yes, most of these ideas that follow are whimsical, others are actually doable. For sure, the best ones aren't inspired by a big glitzy game, but from everyday life.


Through the end zone darkly
by Dan DeMaggio

You're a runty little brat with a snotty nose, full of piss and vinegar and a penchant for pissing off every single kid you try to make friends with. You chase the richer kids, the more beautiful kids, the kids who carry themselves with ease and confidence, and you try to make them like you. You savor the crumbs of attention they occasionally drop onto your tongue and whistle all the way home when one of them remembers your name. But behind your back, the chosen ones spit when you are out of sight. They mock you with such ferocity that it would liquefy your spine if you were within earshot of their sharpened tongues.

They hate your guts, but you kiss their ass at every turn. You supplant your needs with theirs, giving them every cent of your milk money. You will never make them love you. Never. But you run your fingers through your matted hair, pucker up and plant one on their asses anyway. You're the city of Detroit, and you'll never learn your lesson.

The thought of cleaning up the city for the world to see, of changing people's minds about how they perceive us, is a waste of time. It dares us to be meek and ashamed. "I hear that's a pretty rough town," they all say. And if it gets you a drink on the house or the attention of the danger-seeking slut shooting pool with her old man, you sure as hell aren't going to waste a whole lot of time swaying them from the myth. So Detroit, let's have a little fun with the bullying boys. Let's give titty-twisters to the bitches who never looked at us twice. Let's give 'em what they're afraid of. Let's give 'em what they really want to see:

1) Keep the streetlights off at night during the two-week "celebration." The city should do nothing in the way of decoration or enhancement. Matter of fact, from Detroit City Airport to Metropolitan Airport, corpses should line the shoulders of I-94. Throw a few on the medians too. These don't all have to be murder victims. Let the kids at the Hilberry Theatre get some experience with makeup by converting everyday dead people into the ghastly remnants of good old-fashioned Detroit violence. Some could hang out the windows of the Penobscot building. Put one on the Joe Louis fist on Jefferson Avenue. Have some of them sticking out of the ice in the Detroit River. Get creative!

2) All hookers who have even a remote chance of "partying" with one of the well-heeled notables visiting town should be crack-addicted and suffering from an incurable venereal disease. How you like that souvenir, Mr. Head-Of-A-Very-Large-Food-Wrapping-Manufacturer-From-Spokane-Washington? Say hi to the wife for us, will ya?

3) The halftime show should eschew all the classic rock and safe R&B and go with a re-creation of the rioting of 1967. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick could lead "those guys" in battle, and L. Brooks Patterson could champion "these guys." The National Guard could be hit up for a few tanks and the gridiron could be covered with vintage Coke bottles and syringes, so that we could show the world we really are a nicer place since those carefree days. Jack White and 50 Cent could rise from the middle of the field amid a swirl of smoke and sparklers and get the crowd weeping with a very garage-y, very hip-hoppity take on "Ebony and Ivory."

4) Although this may be a hard sell to the NFL brass, allow the periodic release of bums onto the field to harangue the players and referees with pleas for 87 cents so they can get to Pontiac. Make sure each bum has a different reason for wanting to go to Pontiac, and also make sure that he or she is loquacious enough to capture the player's attention with aplomb and grace. When players try to explain they have no money on them, all bums will be required to curse the players with such nuggets as "I fucked your mother last night" and "you just hatin'."



I have been thinking about this all week and fully intended to send you something, but I have been required to be up at the butt crack of dawn for days now, and working late nights, so my brain feels like jelly. This is all I have at the moment: I have always wanted to obliterate all of the billboards in the city (in the country too, truth be told). My idea was always to have some other message on them, uplifting, motivating, moving, thought-provoking and, without a doubt, not selling anything. I really do want to do this, but realistically it would call for a massive covert guerrilla operation, or a shitload of dough. What I have been wracking my brain about all week is what would be the clever saying? Imagery? I still can't say for sure. I think if they were all done in a brilliant color scheme that made one think of the atmosphere on a given day, or tested out color theory and depth, or the perfect Martha Stewart accent color to go with our faded city. ...

Clint Snider


Dear Rebecca,

All hotel rooms in the area will be closed: every Super Bowl XL visitor will stay with a Detroit family in their home for the duration of the visit. For clean inner city transportation, fill I-75, I-94 and other expressways with water and set up rowboat taxis. And finally, when Ford Field is full to capacity with screaming football fans, without announcement, the football game is replaced by a world cup soccer match: France vs. Mexico. No refunds: All Super Bowl ticket sales will have been divided among the 13,000 homeless people living in the streets of Detroit.

Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman


Dear Rebecca,

The only thing I think we could do for the Super Bowl tourists is to try to get in their way, starting when they arrive at the airport, with gallery displays in the terminals and maybe in some of the transport vehicles. Even the shuttle buses could be commandeered by artists. We could kidnap some of those drunks and take them to an art gallery. That's our only opportunity to put the face on the city they don't know about. We're dealing with a group of people who come to the city to party; they're not here to see art. Those wraps could have been great paintings. On the sides of buses, on the buildings ... it's too bad that the city's approach to tourism has nothing to do with art. No matter if it's Cuba or Mexico or New Jersey, you name it, art's usually out there for people to see. The arts community gets offered no projects, in terms of improving the city's image. As much as you'd like to see something rather than nothing, quality should be a concern, but it's not. There are ways for us to do something that doesn't cost a lot of money.

Allie McGhee


Dear Rebecca,

Having spent two years just north of Detroit, I became familiar with the city and was exceedingly depressed by the lack of enthusiasm from politicians and the money men to inject the city with hope, promise and a colorful future. As it is simply a blank canvas right now, just waiting to be filled in, this is what I would do:

I would turn all the city streets into bowling lanes. Detroit has the most registered bowlers in the United States, so I say, round 'em up. All registered bowlers are to come in attire and flood the city. Each bowler or team gets its own street and there's a tournament not unlike the NCAA's March Madness for basketball. Imagine the noise as a bowling ball gets tossed down a potholed, paved street ... the rules would be hammered out later. The pins will be oversized, like 5 feet tall, or maybe even small replicas of automobiles. The edges of the road will be filled with potato chips because Detroit is the potato chip capital of the world, based on consumption, and who the hell doesn't eat a chip or two while watching the big game? So the chips will serve as the "gutter bumpers" during the bowling games. People can make potato-chip angels, perhaps even there should be a competition for that too. Just plain chips though, no ranch or barbecue. ... In addition, all abandoned buildings will be covered with flowers via an elaborate system of hanging planters. The flowers will add beaucoup de color and a pleasant scent coming in from above, to mix with the potato chip haven that will be the streets of Detroit. Bowlers with wrist braces, bad shirts and polyester pants will rule the streets, not the men in blue. People will eat free chips. Oh, yeah, there will be free ginger ale because I think Detroit has some weird connection with that drink too.

Darren McManus



Oh, boy!

OK, this is an idea I've always wanted to execute, and somehow I've never gotten it done. I want to make a gigantic flock of radio-controlled sheep. Maybe half-life-sized. What the heck, make them the size of actual sheep. They can be made out of anything sturdy yet lightweight enough to fit on a chassis so they can be maneuvered. Fiberglass or some sort of resin would work. Heck, they can even be papier-mâché. That would give them a nice, homey touch. Most of them will be white, but there should definitely be a few black sheep in there. Each one will have a little MP3 player or a mini-cassette player with a loop of bleating sheep sounds. With all these people in town there will need to be at least 500 of them — a veritable army of sheep. I'll hand out controllers to random passersby and on my signal, everyone would turn their sheep loose and let them all go. Picture it — 500 sheep all zooming around at random, wherever they want to go — crashing into each other, zipping into doorways and out again, tripping up pedestrians, dashing out into traffic, creating general havoc. The city will grind to a halt. Utter chaos. Panic in Detroit. Man, that's gonna be beautiful.

Mary Fortuna



I know what I would do with this city: I'd get rid of some of this bad sculpture we've got around. I look around and see very few works that have significance — most of them are people riding horses. What's that all about? It's uplifting to me to see art become an integral part of society, rather than something you sit on and don't know it's art. In Detroit, we can't seem to bring art into the arena of reality, as testimony to the uniqueness of our time and existence. I would merge art and utility. If you're going to use old materials and methods, at least give them new form. And they're painting over these places just to hide the blight. Let's create some kind of art that would say the city is culturally rich, rather than just looking at a facade that's not real. That's crippling. You need a honed vision, like Noguchi Fountain. Right now we're dipping in the pocket and coming up with stuff that's not significant. Why not sit on a good bench or eat out of a good spoon?

Charles McGee


Hello Rebecca,

Yes. This isn't downtown, but ... I think everyone should put lawn animals, such as deer, horses, squirrels, pink flamingos, whatever, along I-94 where they installed all that super-bright lighting, from the airport to downtown. It's just begging for something to be lit up other than fucking pine trees. That would be great.

Mitch Cope



What I would like to see is an installation of large-scale sculpture and paintings on expressway interchanges and curbing ramps that already have trees, lighting and landscape. It would create interesting vistas throughout the southeast region. An example would be the Lodge south, northbound at 1-94 and I-75 at the Davison ramp — these are perfect locations.

Richard Bennett

Rebecca Mazzei is the arts editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]