Big Ideas for Shrinking Cities

Think about Detroit. Pause. Now rethink it harder. Come up with a list of serious questions about the state of the city and its future. Dig for answers within a sticky historical matrix that includes decades of de-industrialization, racism, loss of community, neighborhood and commercial life and a declining population that has reduced a city of nearly 2 million people in 1950 to fewer than 900,000 according to a 2005 U.S. Census estimation.

Too negative? Think yet again, says Mitch Cope, one of the curators of the sprawling, cross-disciplinary exhibition called Shrinking Cities, which opens this Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) in Midtown and the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills.

"The show intends to start a necessary conversation about things we don’t want to talk about, but we need to," says Cope, who also curated the Detroit section of the original show in Berlin in 2004. "Shrinking Cities presents the full spectrum of complex issues that don’t have simple solutions. How do you reinvent a city? How do you bring life back to a place where life is disappearing? The answers are clearly not in trying to reverse history, in the gentrification of neighborhoods or building sports stadiums that say nothing real about the place they inhabit. This exploration process is a good thing, and this show does it by presenting it on a vast, multi-layered platform."

Street-level scholarship

Shrinking Cities was born out of an ambitious project of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. It features more than 200 painters and sculptors, geographers and statisticians, architects and designers, filmmakers and videographers, and scholars and researchers from over 12 countries. Chief Curator Philipp Oswalt calls the show "not art, but a hybrid of science and art."

The exhibition — which examines urban decline in Halle/Leipzig, Germany; Manchester/Liverpool, England; Ivanovo, Russia and Detroit — intends to get to the root of problems shaped at once by local politics, global economics and ambient phenomena that cannot be easily measured or explained.

The show is even marketed as if it were a utopian blueprint for changing the way we think of place, and how we define city. A significant part of the Shrinking Cities mission is to offer "imaginative remedies for regions that have undergone decline." Perhaps even more important for a city like Detroit, the show "suggests artistic and architectural interventions that are visionary."

Cope says the exhibition's multiple approaches "range from the abstract and the theoretical to practical tools that can be used every day. The show attempts to reinvent urbanism and the way people live. It’s a serious project that can grow over time, not one meant for a quick fix."

Cranbrook Art Museum will host Shrinking Cities: International Research, which includes much of the work from the original Berlin exhibition. The show recognizes how important the role music and related cultural life play in the identities of Manchester/Liverpool — the gray, northern English cities perhaps best known worldwide as home to Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths and, of course, the Beatles — and Detroit, where Motown, the MC5 and techno music built powerful global legacies both real and mythological.
Pulling no punches

A warning to those who only want to see and hear good things about Detroit: The show doesn't flinch from telling it like it is, pulling no punches. But it does so respectfully, with stylish grace and humor.

In Moving Graves, a film by Jody Huellmantel and Mitch Cope with research by the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, the filmmakers profile a suburban family moving the remains of a loved one from a Detroit cemetery to one in Clinton Township. The bitter message? There are people in the metro area who consider the city too dangerous even for the dead. Kyong Park's film, Detroit: Making it better for you, is a fiction piece that blames the decline of Detroit and the emergence of banal suburbanization on a strategic plan hatched by the auto industry, real estate developers and the media. Pure nonsense or spot-on psychogeographical conspiracy theory? You decide.  

Jeff Karolski's "Devil's Night Poster Series" snickers at the PR campaign — successful as it turns out — that changes the name of the day before Halloween to "Angel's Night." Painter Clinton Snider's sad-sweet "Memorial" shows a neighborhood where little else remains but a utility pole surrounded by children's toys; and Christopher McNamara's playfully odd sight/sound installation features two films going on simultaneously alongside a vintage 1967 pinball game called "Magic City." One film shows a sprinkler spraying water at the Windsor artist's childhood home; the other is footage of the 1967 Detroit riot as seen on Canadian television.

The Detroit section also includes a detailed history of the Heidelberg Project, Tyree Guyton’s internationally celebrated critique of neighborhood abandonment.

Music and lectures    

MOCAD will host part two of the exhibition called Shrinking Cities: Interventions. The response to the more analytical first phase of the exhibition offers strategies for change and action.

Cope says when the show traveled to Leipzig/Halle, an area that was developed by the communist East German government as a workers' city, "it was put on in a train station that had been abandoned after the factories closed. Trains that took thousands of people to their jobs every day stopped running. Occupying the space in this critical way was an important step in changing this situation, creating new possibilities for life in the community."

Contributions to the Interventions phase of the exhibition are poetic and provocative, ranging from recommendations to cultivate feral tracts of land in degraded neighborhoods — kin to the urban agriculture movement in Detroit that has drawn attention from all over the world — to working with socially and economically underprivileged people to form mini-economies based around recycling.

During a "ruralization" performance piece in Liverpool, a herd of cattle was released in an impoverished neighborhood for two weeks. Why? "The cows were allowed to wander in streets that people were afraid to walk anymore," Cope says. "The idea was to bring people back out of their houses and into the neighborhood. It did."

Unfortunately, Detroit will not see the spectacle of cows released into its streets during this Shrinking Cities exhibition. But a variety of activities and special events are planned:

• A free "conceptual" bus will run from MOCAD to Cranbrook and back during the show, making the case — simply and profoundly — that public transport is crucial in linking people to places in the region.
• There will be live music performances by Detroit avant-rock, jazz, noise and electronic musicians;
• Oswalt is coming from Berlin to give an introductory talk;
• Kyong Park, the founder of the International Center for Urban Ecology, will talk about his contributions to the project.
• Ingo Vetter, a professor of fine arts at Sweden's Umea University who installed a living ghetto palm from Detroit for the original show at Berlin’s KW Institute of Contemporary Art, will lecture on urban agriculture;
• California-based sound artist Jon Brumit will do a driving tour accompanied by audio information gleaned from radio signals he's strategically planted in locations around the city.

(For a schedule, go to:

Many other talks and various panel discussions will be held at MOCAD and Cranbrook, where the show is under the stewardship of Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum. Cope is handling the reigns in Detroit with MOCAD acting director Marsha Miro.

"We are trying to get people in Detroit to see things head on, even if it appears harsh at times," Cope says. "Shrinking Cities is an investigation into reality. There is a lot of work to be done, and much truth and beauty to be found and discovered."

Joint opening night receptions are Friday, Feb. 2. from 6-9 p.m. at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills and at MOCAD (4454 Woodward Ave. in Midtown Detroit). Then, Odu Afrobeat Orchestra and Human Eye will perform from 9 p.m.-midnight at MOCAD to benefit the exhibit. Admission for the entertainment is $10.

Walter Wasacz is editor-at-large for Model D and metromode and co-founded the sonic art collective Paris '68. He will give a talk at Cranbrook on Feb. 23 called Sound Effects: Music Builds Community in "Shrinking Cities" and moderate the panel discussion Mythological Psychogeographies: Detroit and Music on March 22 at MOCAD. 


Mocad Window

Shrinking Cities book

Mitch Cope, curator for Mocad

Jon Brumit, artist,

Shrinking Cities poster

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.