Irony: Journal

Irony home page

This is an edited version of my trip journal. Blue text links to pages within the Irony site. Pointers like this ^ link to external web sites. There's a map of the region for orientation. See also International Ironic Links for some links to rust-belt artists.
Postcard, Whitley Bay
Foreward: Why am I doing this? Because I grew up in a region where there used to be coal mining, steel-making and ship-building, and now there is little of the above. To be precise, I grew up in Whitley Bay, a seaside town where there used to be British holiday-makers, and now there are few of the above. My partner, David, grew up in Flint, Michigan, a famously declining car-making town, so although I lived in California for a little while, I knew there was a bigger picture.
Of the many problems faced by post-industrial places, there seems to almost no sharing of possible solutions and experience. Of the excellent art being made by artists in these areas, most seems to be out of the London-New York art loop. That's why I'm doing it.
Sun October 4
Pick up my car from 'Rent-a-Wreck'. The manager's wife is from Bradford (UK) and is a big fan of Newcastle's heavy-drinking nightlife. She opines rather nostalgically that people there "know how to enjoy themselves". Wave goodbye to my partner, receive much advice not to ever get out of my car in Detroit, always to lock my car doors, etc. Drive to Hamilton, concentrating mostly on driving on the wrong side of the road.
Mon October 5
Hamilton, Ontario
Incredibly friendly artists doing interesting work - some environmentally concerned (post-industrial waste), Peter Karuna doing film-work on race. Somehow art in non-capital cities always seem much less blandly international than the capital cities where I usually get to go on research trips. More room for the quirky.
Hamilton is rather like Sunderland. The heavy industries are on their last legs [press clipping] meaning that the University and the Hospital are now the biggest employers. But there are very few skills transferable from the old industries to the new, meaning a very divided city.
Tue October 6
Drive to Windsor through light industrial stuff. The radio news programs says that there's been a rash of shootings of lorry drivers on this stretch of motorway. The motive is unknown, but speculation ranges from free trade war, or cuckolded husband, to Mafia connections.
Wed October 7
Windsor, Ontario
Windsor is a slightly scruffy but livable, friendly town which looks across the river to the gothic, intimidating towers of Detroit. (Someone told me that this is the frozen river across which a character in Uncle Tom's Cabin dramatically escapes from slavery into Canada?) Artists^ are doing some interesting performance work; someone did a 'call and response' audio work across the river.
Thu October 8
Windsor - Grand Rapids, Michigan
Now in the US - drive past sprawling Detroit to Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids seems to be surviving - it has mixed light industry such as furniture making. Small art centre doing good stuff due to lots of voluntary work (as usual in minimal US funding). Watch the film Harlan County about a mining strike in Appalachia(?) Moving and scary - union-busters at one point shoot a picket in the head.
We discuss the differences between US and Canada (although Americans seems to know much less about the Canadian systems than vice versa) - the health care and welfare systems make a huge difference (in the US, they are almost non-existent). It's possible to 'fall' incredibly quickly if you can't work/get injured - no wonder people sue for huge amounts. I believe that 1/3 of America's children live below the poverty line. Many Americans are miles from their families too - I can't imagine where the support comes from- or maybe it just doesn't.
Sat October 10
Traverse City, Michigan
Drive up shore of Lake Michigan to Traverse City where there is a dunes national park, it's all fairly commercialised though - apparently fast food outlets can be part of a Park. I stay in a motel, and the couple next door spend several hours shouting "bitch!" and "asshole!" at each other until I am very bored. The next morning I see them leave, immaculately groomed, in a smart four-wheel-drive.
Sun October 11
Drive to Flint via Lansing, where there is supposed to be a small museum where Malcolm X lived for a time, but can't find it - certainly no signposts to it!
Mon October 12
Flint, Michigan
Ah, Flint, famous for Roger and Me^, and birthplace of my partner, David. Lots of character, friendly and funny artists, and a good bar^!
Flint seems to be soldiering on - some areas doing OK, some areas really abandoned. You can buy a detached mansion for a few thousand dollars. (Strange that artists are perhaps some of the few people to benefit from this - they can have huge studios cheap - on the other hand there's few with the money to buy artwork. There is a huge old marble art gallery/museum (Flint Arts Institute) which is now eerily quiet. The dome of the ill-fated 'Auto-World' (a theme-park on the theme of car manufacture) is also still there, in its vast empty car-park.
Again education seems one of the few growth areas, the big new shopping mall featured in Roger and Me is now ... part of the University campus! The students looked very much at home, I suppose they would.
Thu October 15
Detroit is the most amazing city I've ever been in: very friendly people, very aggressive architecture and structure. Huge swathes of the city centre have just been 'thrown away' and abandoned. Hundreds of 'street people' despite the punishing climate. Some areas have no money to repair roads, so there's huge potholes in major ring-roads. It's like the end of the world/ post holocaust ... from which rise huge gleaming towers such as the Renaissance Center. They have little or no pedestrian access from street level (where the street people live): you have to drive (of course) into the underground car parks, from where, via security, you can enter lifts, and the complex of offices and shopping Mall. Then, if you want to get to another building, again streets aren't necessary, there are aerial pedestrian glass 'tubes' running from building to building. Cosily protected suburbans can look down onto the swaddled street people below. I spent a long time there. You can also see Windsor, in Canada, on the other side of the river - it has parks and quite a lot of green.
Driving through the deadlands of Detroit, is like a trip through limbo, or maybe even as far as hell: workers' detached family houses abandoned, used as crack houses, or burnt out. The remaining people thoroughly trapped. Men walking on pavements with such caution that it seems they expect the stones to collapse from under them. The only visible trade is the drug trade, and an occasional slaughterhouse. Sprawled bodies in corners. Two men in a glass bus shelter, one lying precariously on the tilting seats, the other tenderly cradling his head. It starts to rain but the people on the streets don't seem to notice. These things have been photographed a thousand times. I don't take any photographs. Land is cheap here, and areas can just be thrown away when finished with, the people with them (city planning of the 'nightmare' school). Factories are left to fall apart, as it's cheaper that way.
Detroit seems like the logical conclusion of something, but I'm not quite sure what. The mediaeval fortified city?
Fri October 16
Photographing Focus Hope^ today. It's been going for over 25 years, since the big riots trashed that part of town. It has an excellent childcare centre, a training centre (engineering, computer skills etc.), a producing machining centre, and a 'food prescription' service. The head guy is a Catholic priest, but it doesn't feel like a churchy/charity place, it feels really broad. I was very impressed.
This area is suffering from 'the donut effect', a common complaint of US cities, where the inner cities are perceived as high-crime, and middle class people move out to the suburbs ('white flight'). The suburbs get further and further out - miles and miles of spread out detached houses. Travelling into the centre gets difficult, the suburbs get their own shopping malls, the centre dies, and the car is uber alles. (Coming to a British city near you soon?)
The centre dies, and the poor get left there, in houses now worth nothing. I saw someone driving in a car without tyres on - noisy, but functional. There were bakeries selling goods past their sell-by date, and women carrying babies without buggies (just like West Newcastle, only the Newcastle people are white-bread).
I've had lots of conversations here about race and class. In the US, because the rhetoric is that it is a classless society, 'Black' seems to have become a synonym for 'poor'. Thus the problems of poverty (crime, very young women having children, drugs etc.) which are in Newcastle very obviously applicable to poor white people, have a bizarre subtext in the US of being some kind of African-American 'lifestyle choice'.
Race seems central to many Rust-Belt issues. In the 1950's and 60's African Americans migrated to the area from the South, for industrial jobs, and less racist structures. Now many of the jobs have moved South again, to Texas or Arizona (states not known for their liberal thinking), away from union strongholds, towards cheaper labour. People of colour do not, perhaps, have the same freedom of movement for reasons other than the economic. Want to move to Texas?
Unions have an ambivalent history concerning race. Before World War II many were instrumental in excluding black workers. There tends to be a cycle of union activity, as the poorest workers get better off, and tend to abandon union activity. This has also meant a cycle of race: Eastern European immigrant workers were the early mainstay, then African Americans, now people of colour form the rising membership. In Britain there's been twenty years of concerted propaganda directed against unions and the idea of class solidarity, towards the idea of individual effort. Many working class people seem to have bought into this, but it seemed like the Black people in Michigan were harder to convince that solidarity weren't important. Maybe because they were less likely to be able to move away, they seemed more committed to solving problems and making local solutions, often against huge odds.
Because many of the companies have moved factories to low wage areas such as Mexico, or Pacific Rim countries, it seems difficult to campaign about this without slipping into racism: In Michigan, two white auto workers beat a Chinese man to death with a baseball bat, thinking that he was Japanese, and hence a car-making competitor.
Sun October 18
After lots of intense conversations with lots of new people, I'm slobbing out in a motel and watching telly in bed. Bliss.
I wander round a shopping mall where there's a guy playing a grand piano in the concourse, poor bastard. The young women here remind me of Newcastle; they have a brash style of their own - very different from Toronto or California - nicely designed stuff of the 'if you've got it, flaunt it' school.
Mon October 19
For a big city, Detroit doesn't have much of a non-commercial art scene, and seems to have bit of an inferiority complex in relation to New York, but I've found some good individual artists doing quirky work. There's Deanna Sperka doing work about abandoned homes, and the amazing Vince Carducci who is vice-president of a bank, and does performances concerning him going through the motions of his job!
Went to the Big Gallery (Detroit Institute of Arts) where they have the big Diego Rivera murals. Apparently at one point the powers that be were going to whitewash them over for being suspiciously communistic (and perhaps also suspiciously multi-racial). Interesting.
A block from the gallery I went into a small grocery shop for a snack, and the entire stock of goods and counter staff were behind very thick Plexiglas screens with elaborate revolving flaps for handing over goods and money. This is rather difficult if you aren't practised enough to recognise packaging from a distance. It's rather like watching people and cornflake packages floating in a rather muddy-watered aquarium. You know that crime has to be very serious indeed to interfere with every American's right to shop.
Even the public art is the most aggressive collection I've ever seen: A huge fist for Joe Louis; huge spiky scarlet metal; piles of scrunched cars; huge heavy metal slabs.
Tue October 20
I do a talk for Wayne State University^ art students who were very interesting. This University seems to have avoided the preppie sheltered isolation that many US Universities strive for. At first I was surprised at the poor quality of students at some Californian art colleges, until I realised how much the fees were, and the extent to which this tends to select students by parental income rather than talent. We have this to look forward to in the UK.
Marilyn Zimmerman kindly takes me to the Motown Historical Museum in the afternoon. The grand name belies the fact that the museum is a very small wooden house (Berry Gordy's) connected to another such by a corrugated plastic tube. Berry Gordy did all that amazing stuff in a basement recording studio about the size of a cupboard. I also learn that the early record covers have strange cartoons and shapes on them, because apparently, they weren't allowed to put any images of Black people on the covers. The Museum obviously gets by on very little if any funding - a real shame to see such an important place starting to crumble. They have a cut-out of Michael Jackson to have your photo taken in, so of course I do, and look even stranger than he does. I also buy a knitted version of his single jewelled glove. They have the original, and a few of years ago it was stolen by thieves. After a Detroit-wide appeal, the glove was actually returned, and the honour of the city was saved. This place does remind me of Newcastle.
Sat October 24
Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland is a city that Americans make fun of as a place that you wouldn't want to live, and indeed the 'centre' is full of the kind of corporate architecture which seems destined only to intimidate and create wind-tunnels. The locals call one 'the Darth Vader'. I'm staying with the very charming Mashumi Hayashi though, she's taking me to more characterful bits like the indoor market, and I'm meeting some nice artists. One of the things that Americans do very well is 'live/work' spaces for artists: their city planning means that artists can get things like light industrial/office units pretty cheaply, where they can live too - seems to work well - doesn't seem to happen in the UK so much.
It's on Lake Erie, one of the 'Great Lakes'. It is indeed rather eerie to have a lake that you can't see the other side of. These lakes are now improving somewhat after years as being used as industrial waste pools. There's an artist who takes photos, and then develops his film in the Lake. Rather scary.
Mon October 26
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh is pretty dramatic physically, with hills, rivers and big bridges, rather like Newcastle. Very diverse too, so it seems to be surviving economically. I get the feeling that the financial central area of Pittsburgh is rapidly going into denial about the steel past in favour of a techno-clean future PR drive (again, rather like Newcastle!) Lots of new swanky restaurants etc.
Some excellent art stuff like the Mattress Factory, Silver Eye, and the lovely Tony Buba^, who makes films about Braddock, an ex-steelmaking suburb, which include massed ranks of accordion players.
Wed October 28
Photographing in Pittsburgh/Braddock
I pull into a fast food joint near Braddock, and a young woman employee on a cigarette break outside says "congratulations". I discover that Toronto has just won the World Series, and I have a car with Toronto number plates. She travels over 15 miles to work at this minimum-wage job in a burger bar, travels another 15 to go to night-school, and says that she'd like to go to California. She is also visibly sceptical at my claim that there are areas like Braddock in England. It's another link with NE England perhaps, that strangers will engage you in conversation here, unlike California, where overtures from me tend to be greeted with polite but worried alarm (but perhaps that's just me!)
(The 'World' Series is, rather amusingly, a baseball tournament which includes only the US and Canada)
Thu October 29
Buffalo/ Niagara
Being British, I often have difficulty in locating the 'centre' of American cities. With Buffalo, I fail entirely, so I'm not sure if I've been.
Niagara is cheerfully tacky, rather like Blackpool, only, as it is popular with honeymooners, it has lots of 'Love Motels', in pink.
Fri October 30
Return the trusty car to 'Rent-a-Wreck'. After a month I was getting fond of it. As the toy says "Mystery Action. The Girl Taking Photo When it Stops."
Californians may have laughed at my itinerary, but this has been the most fascinating trip in my life - such brilliant people. It's not true that Americans don't have a sense of irony - it's just that I never met a white Californian who did.

Return to Irony Home map
Return to Beryl home page