Gina Reichert, Born Cincinnati, OH, 1974 / BArch, Tulane University, MArch, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Mitch Cope, Born Detroit, 1973 / BA, Center for Creative Studies; MFA, Washington State University / Lives in Detroit
There are effectively two periods in the recent history of Detroit art: before and after the publication of “For Sale: The $100 House,” the now infamous 2009 New York Times article that extolled the creative possibilities of minimally priced Detroit real-estate by relating the experiences of Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, the couple behind art/architecture practice Design 99, and the artist-run, neighborhood-based nonprofit Power House Productions. After the article was published the pair were deluged with interview requests, and with e-mails from artists around the world requesting information on how to move to Detroit and participate. They decided that for a period of two months they would try to answer every media approach they received. At the end of that period their lives were irreversibly changed, and if the truth be told, so was the narrative of Detroit art.
Ironically, their vision, to stabilize the Detroit neighborhood they had recently moved to via a loose network of art/architectural interventions, was at that stage little more than an idea. The one component somewhat in place was The Power House, a compact wood-frame house typical of the area to which they had given a distinctive exterior paint scheme, and that was ultimately intended to service a small local grid through solar and wind energy. The title of the work was a statement of intent, the word “Power” referring to both the creation of renewable energy, but also to a process of empowerment through highly localized acts of creative agency. If Reichert and Cope have a philosophy it is expressed through this combination of tangible and symbolic objectives.
After The Power House, things moved quickly. In short order, local properties were re-purposed into Play House, a space for performance-based work operated in partnership with The Hinterlands, Sound House, an experimental sound studio, and Jar House, an office, library and local gathering space. This expansive project was the beneficiary of Juxtapoz magazine’s 15th anniversary auction, providing funds for working visits by notable artists such as Swoon that resulted in a significant collection of site-specific art throughout the properties. Ride It Sculpture Park, a neighborhood skate park was begun in 2012, and the conversion of the Squash House – a small community space intended to combine the playing of squash, the sport, and the growing of squash, the vegetable – in 2011. The result of all this effort was a remarkable collection of art/architecture projects, drawing both local and international visitors.
Alongside the development of the physical structures, another aspect of Reichert and Cope’s vision began to evolve. The area already had a substantial, and stable, Bangladeshi population – it was part of the reason that the pair first purchased a home there. As word of the area spread, a significant number of artists started to purchase homes there, some collaborating directly with Reichert and Cope, others pursuing their own projects, yet others moving simply to become part of the local community. The publicity that the area’s artistic activity generated created a broader awareness of the neighborhood, and increasingly this formerly anonymous area became known as “Banglatown.” Heavy support from philanthropic foundations allowed a number of neighborhood events and festivals to take place, attended by large and diverse audiences. The net result? According to Cope, the area’s population is growing, and there is a steady demand for properties.
Ultimately many of the questions that the couple’s work raise are about agency, and our ability to transform our surroundings. Charles Esche, the massively influential Director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and an early collaborator with the pair, believes that they are developing a “new kind of artistic agency” one that is “more modest, less openly artistic, crossing disciplines and often just about being in the world in this place and time.” He may be right. But can an artistic project that has generated as much media interest as this ever again “just be?” To a certain extent, Reichert and Cope are victims of their own success. As Cope puts it, “We’ve only ever put out one press release, we’ve stopped answering requests for interviews, we’ve stopped publicizing events because we want to keep them to the neighborhood … but still they come.” In the end, this too may serve Reichert and Cope’s overarching project – of changing perceptions, both at the local level, and in the broader sense, of the role of the artist.
Steve Panton, May 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016