Born Royal Oak, MI, 1984 / BA, Naropa University; MFA, International Center of Photography – Bard College / Lives in Detroit and New York
Self-described “media activist” Kate Levy uses her extensive place-based research to explore issues of social justice through video, photography, and artist books. A central concern of Levy’s practice is who does or does not have access to means of representation. Highly conscious of her privileged social, economic, and educational background, she is determined to create working relationships that transcend this – even when it means giving up elements of creative control. For example, the 51 minute film I Do Mind Dying (2017) – covering water affordability and shutoff issues in Detroit from 2014 to 2017 – was developed in collaboration with numerous grassroots and advocacy groups. During the work’s production, Levy distributed cameras to people who lived in neighborhoods with high levels of shutoffs, and the subsequent material was merged with Levy’s own footage in a collective editorial process. The result is an urgent, and multi-layered, work that combines on the ground reporting with revelatory research to create a damning indictment of the web of injustice that envelops many Detroit citizens – recounted in the words of people in the thick of the action.
Tellingly, Levy refers to I Do Mind Dying not as a documentary, but as an “organizing tool.” Surrounding the film itself is an extensive online archive of interviews, research, contact lists, and event-based footage. The outcome is not just of a collection of information, but equally a model of resistance. Some particularly poignant examples might be the moving interview with the late water-rights activist Charity Hicks (2014), and the quietly impassioned closing arguments of Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellerman in the “Homrich 9” trial (2015), in which he and others were charged with disorderly conduct following a civil disobedience action to block trucks leaving a contractor’s yard to conduct water shut-offs.
Using the model of I Do Mind Dying as an origin point, various directions can be traced outward through Levy’s projects. One route leads toward the world of investigative journalism. In this area, Levy has had a particularly rewarding relationship with the writer Curt Guyette and the ACLU of Michigan. This has resulted in works such as Here’s to Flint (2016), a 42 minute documentary on the Flint water crisis, and exposure to national audiences through subsequent video reporting for outlets such as Democracy Now. A second path leads towards education and community empowerment. For example Info D-Mocracy (2017) was a commission by the Detroit Equity Action Lab at the Wayne State Law Department to develop a training program to enable community members to acquire deeper research skills and investigation methods. A third direction propels Levy’s trademark research into gallery-based projects such as 2015’s Fate of the Machinery.
At the core of Fate of the Machinery are two views of the relationship between Levy’s family and the city of Detroit. The first is a complete set of newspaper adverts describing the auctions of Norman Levy Associates from 1955 to 1984 – a period in which Levy’s family built a significant global business as the preeminent industrial auction house in the city. These materials (strikingly displayed in the gallery setting as a continuous 80 foot chain) memorialize the almost unimaginably vast human and economic cost of de-industrialization, as redundant assets ranging from small family stores to entire automotive plants are liquidated. The second view, which filled the remainder of the gallery’s wall-space during its installation, is a manuscript centered on conversations Levy filmed over three years with her family about manufacturing, economics, Detroit, art, class, race and familial love. The tone of the conversation is intimate, but often adversarial, particularly when it comes to the massive disparity in wealth between Levy’s family and Detroit’s majority African-American population.
Levy’s approach in Fate of the Machinery is to situate her work in the violence inflicted on the city, but look back at how this violence has been normalized in the suburban psyche. It is a strategy she uses to devastating effect in two widely-watched short videos – Fountain (2014), which illustrates the breathtakingly insensitive attitudes of some young Quicken Loan employees to the city’s water shutoffs, and Albert (2014), which uses a satirical approach to clinically deconstruct the racist and ageist underpinnings of a (hastily withdrawn) promotional video for a downtown development project. Ultimately Levy’s concern as an artist is not only to document injustice, and not even just to combat it in the present, but also to expose the current shape of the historic mechanisms that allow it to continue.
Steve Panton, March 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018