Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Detroit looks

Two unique ways of seeing emerge with the summer heat.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Clear (fashion/design)
Volume III, Issue 3 — “nouveau/revival”
US $5.95, Canada $7.95

The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics
by Barrett Watten
Wesleyan University Press, $27.95, 460 pp.

O postmodern metropolis, O postmillennial zeitgeist ... how do we see thee? Let us count the ways.

The world we live in, the dreamscape (or is it a blasted heath?) we crisscross in a constant hurry, is full of icons and illusions, vistas and delusions, miracles and mirages, fetishes and collages, aftermaths and premonitions. And two new, made-in-Detroit publications give us a radically alternative perspective on it all.

On the utopian side of the expressway (where the lanes are always smooth and wide-open, and the breezes blow through your wild but gorgeous hair as you and your lover race off into the pre-dawn glow) speeds a copy of the latest issue of Clear. The fashion-design magazine conceived and produced by Emin Kadi and Ivana Kalafatic in Royal Oak is more stunning than ever. Printed this time on mega-pricey, state-of-the-industry plastic paper (that’s right), it’s a mag you can read in the shower or in the rain, and all that happens is the drops bead and run off. The better to appreciate its bodily fluid-inducing (as in sweat, tears or ...) fashion photography and design concepts that always take a chance on love and a forward-looking attitude to life.

“The Jester,” one of Kadi’s own photo layouts in this issue, juxtaposes burnished black-and-white shots with precise but moody color spreads. He captures impossibly lithe New York model Sheila Klein as she dons or toys with various animal masks and wears a series of stunning tops (and only panties) by the likes of Emanuel Ungaro, Gianfranco Ferre, Burberry Prorsum, Indigo People, etc. There’s something simultaneously Disney-innocent and Story of O-ominous about these erotic adventures, an unmistakable message that fantasies are wonderful and it’s OK — no, it’s good — to have them.

Clear, which has been making huge waves on the international fashion scene, will be a co-sponsor of the Industrial Designers Society of America conference, Aug. 13-16, in New York City ( Then, at the end of August, it’s one of 40 magazines (among them, Face, Wallpaper, Tank, French Vogue, Italian Vogue et al.) to be featured in a design exhibition at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Germany.

On the speculative side of the expressway (where potholes full of postmodern reflections, techno insights and intriguing conclusions slow us down to take a closer look at our surroundings) glides a copy of The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics by Barrett Watten. The author is that rarity in Detroit (or anywhere): an intellectual who takes chances, on the way to exploring uncharted territories and unexpected depths. His imposing volume turns the academy into an all-night rave where avant-garde poetry shakes its booty with Russian constructivism to the sounds of Detroit techno — and when the dawn comes, you’ll be glad you’re still awake and mindful.

Variously focusing his attention on poetic vocabulary, Henry Ford’s production line, Soviet constructivist El Lissitzky, techno pioneer Carl Craig, the fall of Saigon, theories of negativity and post-Soviet poetics, Watten delivers a real brick — nay, a cinderblock — of a text that never stops making and remaking sense. There’s a pervasive feeling of commitment here to a politicized practice of thinking, one in which Watten keeps noticing the cultural changes around him without getting distracted by froth or sheen.

In fact, in a final chapter titled “The Poetics of Space in Posturban Detroit,” Watten looks at our oft-maligned and much-mythologized city through the eyes of Canadian photographer Stan Douglas. The point, for Watten, is to think about what has become of its spaces and lives, and to consider what its own citizens think of it as well. In a concluding paragraph that’s as shattering as the cold light of morning, Watten writes, “We see, then, not only the dismantling of the city through the brutal dialectic of profit and loss, but conditions for its rebuilding in a new form of brutality, where the fantasy of the quick buck becomes reality and Detroit feasts on its own negative history.”

Some folks party on while the bus breaks down and others watch the traffic rolling by. Still others get ready to walk not run to the nearest exit. But the trip goes on.

A reading by Barrett Watten and a publication party for The Constructivist Moment will take place Thursday, Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. at CCS-Center Galleries (301 Frederick Douglass, corner of Brush, Detroit). For more info, call 313-664-7800.

Check out a Blowback feature on Clear Magazine.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at


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