Artist talk, 30.12.2016, 8 pm
Morgan Meis & Peter Senoner
“[m]any works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” Friedrich Schlegel
Where does your fascination and interest for ruins come from?
Some of it is experiential. From a young age on I was fascinated by the experience to be in ruined spaces, ruined structures and buildings, ancient or mediaeval ruins. I was travelling Europe with my parents when I was fairly young, around 11 years old. Ruins spoke to me in a way that is very hard to explain. What fascinates me about ruins is the feeling of being slightly out of time, the attendance of history. The connection to history that is often partly blocked, that has a sadness and a melancholy to it. Ruins often felt more alive to me, as spaces that are supposedly more intact. They carry us to the past. That’s an experience I carried for my entire live. For that I always have been interested in people, either artists, writers or philosophers who deal with ruins.
In the early nineteenth century, the Romantics saw ruins as a vital component in a fragmentary history that they could reconstitute. How do you look at this historical fragments and what kind of knowledge do you think they can convey?
There are different ways to look at ruins. There is the danger that ruins become just a vehicle for nostalgia and for the longing to reconstruct something authentic from the past that had been lost. One that strongly interests me is Walter Benjamin´s approach to get hold of ruins and fragments in a philosophical historical discourse - in his theoretical attempt in the arcades project. If there is a good way to look at ruins, then it is not to see them as a promise or hope, as a coherent or authentic thing from the past that we can pull ourselves back to. But rather it’s a reminder that everything is ruined, that our experience is already ruined. That fragments are not ever going to be pieced together in to a whole, but that we experience time and memory and history, our own lives and identity as fragments. Ruins get us a deeper understanding of our lost condition. We maybe always try to put things back together, but we will never be successful. We will always be in that project and it is impossible and elusive, and that is ok. There are many similarities to the process of creating a piece of art. To look at ruins can be seen as an acknowledgment of reality.
Walter Benjamin´s philosophy of history had a very strong political agenda. Long before the Internet but after the telegraph and film, Benjamin observed the spectacular and fragmentary qualities of modernity and interposed them into his own historical materialist project. By the twentieth century, only the assemblage of fragments in juxtaposition remained, if history would shake loose the sort of historical awakening to which Benjamin aspired. Regarding Detroit: can it ruins trigger some kind of historical awakening from the hundred years sleep of neoliberal capitalism?
There is a reality to be experienced in Detroit that might not be easy to experience in any other city in America. The historical traumas that led Detroit to falling apart are also there in other cities in the U.S., but there they are more repressed. They have been smoothed over intellectually, emotionally and psychologically. Physically they have been paved over and erased by the continuing effort to update the way that cities look and feel and run. The traumas, upheavals and difficulties in Detroit are there materially, staring into your face. The historical memory punches you as you walk around the city. This could be triggering historical awareness or awakening as you put it. It certainly guarantees a confrontation with history and memory, but it does not necessarily lead to progressive political thought. Urban planers and analyst say Detroit has stabilized in terms of loss of population just in the last few years. It has about 700.000 people living within its city limits. Actually population seems to be very slightly growing. The economic development is definitely happening. Recently downtown Detroit was still a more or less abandoned place, where there have been entire skyscrapers that were completely empty. Now a couple of buildings are in the process of being refurbished and returned into stock. A lot of this is happening under the impetus of Dan Gilbert who is the owner of Quicken Loans, which is a huge mortgage loan company. He owns, people estimate, up to 50 percentage of the real estate of downtown. He relocated the cooperate headquarters to downtown Detroit to revitalizes the area. So the area is changing quickly, for better or worse. If you talk to people of course there are discussions about gentrification and a certain anxiety. The city is rapidly developing for sure, but to the benefit of whom? Detroit is a very large very spread out city. The workers of the big car industry got a reasonable good salary so the city was laid out that everybody could by there little house. So it spread out. As all those people left the city, when the jobs left, those neighbourhoods imploded, and as the people could not even get a dollar for their houses anymore, they just abandoned them. Sometimes they burned them down, hoping to get some insurance money. So now you can drive around ruins of waste residential areas.
Detroit is one of the few cities commercialising its own decay. Hollywood is shooting dystopian movies there, ruin-tourism is booming and also more and more artists are attracted by the “congeniality” of the ruins. What do you think about the artistic examination of the aesthetics of decay?
In Detroit it is impossible not coming to terms with its ruins and indeed the examination leads to a richer political and aesthetical discussion. The biggest debates are about how to deal with this material, but Detroit doesn’t want to be reduced to ruins. We should not pretend the city is an empty vessel of this aestheticised ruins. I have been here for a while. I moved around and dwell in it often and still I m sometimes shocked.
In Detroit you are forced to see the physical marks, the wounds, the pain, of the historical trauma of a market economy, literally. Which doesn’t mean it is only a bad story. Good or bad becomes almost irrelevant. It’s the reality of the historical process in the U.S. - of an industrial society and of the area that is now called the rust belt. How it all was build up, how it exploded and then imploded, in such a short period of time. This are kind of events that cannot be dealt with in the first level of experience - when it was actually happening and people were living it. Benjamin therefor is obsessed with Marcel Proust. Such experiences first happen as a shock, which is immediately repressed. It becomes a sort of time bomb and than it blows up on you later. Only in its reflection you get the full impact of it. To me Detroit is kind of a lingering experiential time bomb of this chaotic traumatic history. And I find this is very moving, very powerful. It is necessary to look at this social and urban history. That’s actually why I live here. I don’t want this history to be lost. It s also about how we experience our own life. We are a kind of layering of various disconnected traumas as personalities, too. You can try to smooth that over, because that’s not the stuff you want to deal with. Or you can embrace it, as the true content of the memories that hold us together as subjects. Detroit mirrors this inner live as a city with an honesty that I don’t feel in any other city.
Join the Artist Talk with Morgan Meis and Peter Senoner at the Galleria Doris Ghetta on the 30th of December at 8 pm to hear more about the ruins and history of Detroit, its aesthetics and Peter Senoners artistic research!