Ripple effect: Dutch artists create, stimulate in Detroit's wide-open spaces

European creatives seem to have what might best be described as a healthy fascination with Detroit. They've come to research and document music, art and design; they've come to teach and learn; to collaborate and commingle.

Two artists from Holland this summer completed a two-month residency during which they navigated and agitated the crosscurrents found here. They came to map the "small miracles" of Detroit's transition from manufacturing giant to post-industrial, well, we're not quite sure yet exactly. In the future, it looks like "work," "art" and "fun" could be interchangeable terms around here.

Nikos Doulos, a painter and photographer, and Joao Evangelista, a performance artist, found themselves caught in the turbulence "between illusion and delusion, reality and fiction, passion and fear regarding the notion of (a big city getting smaller)."

Doulos and Evangelista were here as a part of a three-year residency program sponsored by 555 Gallery, the Yes Farm and Expodium, an arts organization based in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

"There is a lot of life here," Doulos says. On the porch of an old house on Farnsworth on Detroit's near East Side, Doulos says artists lured to the "beauty of the decay" need to look beyond it. But, he admits, "it's difficult to escape because we work with the visual language. Let's be fair, we get stimulated by this orgy of decay."

However, Expodium co-director Bart Witte says the program isn't about cultural colonialism, but intended to serve as a catalyst for thought. "Of course, it's all related to negative downfall (of the city's socioeconomic condition). You need to be aware of that, for sure. What we are doing is sending artists to dive in. That's really what it's about, trying to help as much as possible. That usually provides a platform to gain information."

Urban culture is framed through various disciplines -- politics, architecture, media -- but the Expodium experience is designed to "cut right through the framework and come up with suggestions or ask specific questions that are not limited to a specific framework at all, or stimulate people to come up with brand new ideas," says Luc Janssens, Expodium co-director. "For urban development, to have an artist think in the developing process from the start until the end is valuable. We need to come up with new ideas. For that we need to look beyond the framework of the disciplines that we have relied on for so many decades."

Representatives of the arts community were invited to observe and react to four performances by Doulos and Evangelista. The combination of ideas and chemistry usually crystallizes in a central concept, says Evangelista, one being the "biopolarity" of Detroit. What's that mean? Read on:

"People are very passionate about something and love it, or people are very fearful about something and they hate it," he says. "There is no in-between. We look at things as a series of in-betweens. We are able to be neutral about something and to look at it in its full potentiality. Somehow this bipolarity of love and hate makes people move apart from each other rather than realigning and working together."

Why? Detroit in the early 21st century, Evangelista says, is a city "with urban space, but it's also a country village. Everyone has an awareness of what the other is doing, but they remain anonymous. Everyone seems to know each other, especially the art scene. Everyone who wants to make a change in Detroit knows the others that have the same aim. While this seems like a village mentality where everyone knows what's happening, somehow they hold the mentality of 'I do my own thing; I don't need to communicate it.' "

People who have chosen to live in Detroit, Doulos observes, demonstrate a self-reliance that assumes limited support from government, which is uncommon in other big cities, he says. "Here it seems as though you can easily decide where to put your energy -- to restore your house, to support the community you're becoming part of, and so on."

Increasingly, Detroit is a center of attention not for its past, but for its present and future.

Get used to "intruders" playing an even bigger part of the creative culture here, Doulos predicts. In fact, the 555 Gallery has made a commitment to sponsoring visits from international artists -- but those committed to leaving something of value behind, not just taking, says Erin Moran, development director for 555.

Visiting artists who ask for support from the 555 Gallery are told to "think very critically about the legacy they intend to leave," she says. "That doesn't mean a monetary legacy. It means what piece of themselves they are offering in return for what they're claiming to take with them."

The next Expodium team of artists is expected to arrive in Detroit in the next few months. Meanwhile, Duolos and Evangelista are publishing a paper and putting on a performance in Utrecht based on their experience here.
The final performance in the Expodium residency was called "Living and Leaving." It was dedicated to those who will be living in Detroit, as the artists are leaving. "We are here with the total awareness (that) every stone we throw into the water creates a series of ripples," Doulos says. "We should try to define what these ripples are and expose these ripples to the people in Detroit. We are not the ones that stay."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit freelancer and a regular contributor to Model D.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.