Pre-game and Day 1 Recap: the Rust Belt to Artist Belt Conference

It was 4 AM, and I was heading to the conference on a bus. Riding on the Greyhound in the night—Cleveland to Detroit—and it hit me harder than usual, or the realization that the Rust Belt is in itself a work of art. The spires and columns and bricks. The curled iron. The shave-headed dude in a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt laughing like it was noon somewhere in the back of the dark bus. And then a stop in Toledo: a junior gem of Rust Belt Chic with its strip club Marilyn Monroe’s flashing its open sign in the still of the city’s aging.  In fact it was all there as I rode this morning, sitting accidental and beautiful and bigger than any one work of art.

This, then, is the message I hope to hear at the conference, or an acknowledgment from the region’s artists and planners and thinkers that we practically live in a poem and a painting—and thus to make worth from art there should be less of a need to recreate the Rust Belt than there is a need to gently frame it with strokes of individual creation. This is not radical by any means.  Artists and writers put out what is subconsciously soaked in all the time. It’s just that the output can be bastardized as to being toothless, especially when the intent is to revitalize a locale via locally-infused creation.

So what to expect? I am not sure. But given that this is Detroit and home to perhaps one of the most authentically Rust Belt revitalization efforts ever, I am hopeful. Because being in Detroit with its dominating reality is less like sitting with the elephant in the room than it is sitting surrounded by elephants with little recourse but to pay attention to what is not fake. To that end, Rust Belt art revitalization efforts can’t be bullshit illusion (e.g., a neighborhood of upscale galleries). Because then we will fail what is largely true and promising in the first place.

Keep posted as I update from the conference with daily recaps…

Day 1 wrap:

The theme of the first day was connectivity, or more specifically: to find ways to tie-in individual acts of creation into a force that cannot be ignored at the policy table. Before getting into ways to thread this connectivity, it is important to touch on what art seems to be about at the conference.

In short, it is heavily flavored with the concept of revitalization as opposed to the manner of “look at my piece”. Perhap’s this is so because we live in decayed times that offer the need to rebuild, and art is one tool to do it. This isn’t novel.  The arts have been used to do this worldwide. But what’s particular to the Rust Belt movement is the fact we live in a frontier that is literally throwing up canvases for creative types to walk into. Said one commentator, “People in Austin and San Francisco would love to have this resource of space”. But again: how do we thread the recreated space into something serious in the eyes of “serious” people?

In a morning session called “Industrial Transformation in Action: The Creative Economy at Work in Manufacturing and Mass Production” various connectivity issues were talked about. First was the idea of connectivity between the artists themselves, kind of like the incubator effect. Anthony Reale, an industrial designer with Strait Power, had concerns that though there are a lot of impassioned people in the likes of Detroit, this in itself is not enough. Said Reale, “Instead of our creative passion for Detroit trickling into the environment, we got to organize it, move it around, and share it with others.”

For Veronika Scott (her ridiculously cool project is described below), this means making your idea sustainable. “Detroit is so creative,” Scott would say—the shapes of city laid out a window behind her—“but it is so expansive. We are all starting creative endeavors but we’re not creating sustaining networks.” For those manufacturing-related designers this means the old Rust Belt need of building efficient links to your supply chain, and to find a labor pool, if it gets that far.

Speaking to this last point comes another facet of connectivity—or the need to bring it back into the community in some tangible way. This, after all, is what arts-based revitalization entails: not the prettying of our structural crippling, but putting quality back into the resident’s life. Asked one person in the audience—an arts funder who has had little success convincing her workforce development colleagues to fund the arts: “I hear your ideas but how is it going to touch the workforce?” This brings us back to Veronika Scott.

Scott is 21-years old, a self-proclaimed “lifelong Detroiter who is committed to staying in the city”. She is a student at the College of Creative Studies and is scheduled to graduate the Spring. Scott came up with an interesting idea, an idea that takes us back to the pre-game post of creating through the genuineness of the Rust Belt surroundings. For Scott this meant dealing with poverty and homelessness. This is real, and the need to stay warm is real. (I witnessed this last night myself when I came upon a guy who greeted me as he slept between the steam of two grates.) Her idea, put simply, is to create a coat that can store heat during the day, with the coat then serving as a heated sleeping bag at night.

The connectivity of her project is superb on a number of levels. First, Scott works with three women from a homeless shelter who make the products. “Two of the women have made enough money to where they have moved out of the shelter,” said Scott. Second, Scott has made a ridiculous network with Carhartt who is helping her with not only the insulating technology, but with general mentoring support. “One day the CEO heard about the idea from one my professors”, Scott would say, telling about the spontaneity of the relationship. “He called me, said ‘Whatever your wearing right now I don’t care. I want to see you.’” Twenty minutes later Scott was presenting her idea to the CEO and a relationship was struck.

As to the future, Scott hopes to convert an old warehouse into a live-work space for homeless women that will be trained to produce the coat-bags. As to her future, well, shit…Detroit definitely has a keeper.

Other interesting points to the day

–Speaking of connectivity, there was a lot of discussion of the public transit system in Detroit. Some say there is a lack, with one of the moderators telling the panel and the audience that: “I have lived in Detroit for 12 years and have never taken the bus”. The point was not that he didn’t want to, but that it was inconvenient and/or missing. This prompted a Detroiter to say she takes it every day, and that “she is tired of this falsehood that Detroit has no transit system”. I second the latter observation. I have been here a day, and I have taken the 53 twice, waiting less than 5 minutes each time. Here is my Bigfoot picture showing that the D’s invisible beast really does exist.

–Again, connectivity, with an afternoon presentation on shrinking cities literally being connected in a virtual meeting with a shrinking city in Holland, an old coal mining town. The highlight here is the relative divide between Europe’s and America’s reality of having shrunk. The shrinking town in Holland had lost 11% over its history, and is now down to 80,000. When being told that Detroit lost 25% the past decade, the voice from Holland asked: “So, is this a trend?” This prompted a healthy laugh from the American contingent.

By Richey Piiparinen

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