Interviews

THE HEIDELBERG PROJECT & THE POLITICS OF SITE-SPECIFICITY: IN CONVERSATION WITH RACHEL ADAMS

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Rachel Adams is the chief curator and director of programs at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. She recently presented a talk at MOCAD entitled “A History of Heidelberg as Rebellion” in conjunction with MOCAD’s Tyree Guyton retrospective, 2+2=8: Thirty Years of Heidelberg . We discussed the politics of presenting site-specific work within a more traditional art institution, and how shifting the context of the work affects its meaning.

The Heidelberg Project is a site-specific work located less than three miles from MOCAD, I know you didn’t personally curate the show, but as a curator I’m curious as to what you think is the purpose of moving the work from its original context into a more traditionally institutional space? Do you believe the decision has anything to do with Heidelberg existing in an area that is still largely “underdeveloped” in comparison to the now gentrified Midtown neighborhood in which MOCAD is located?

This is a really great question. I think as a project, the Heidelberg has morphed several times over the decades, due to what was happening on the street and neighborhood, and with the city. So the fact that parts of it were moved into MOCAD for this show, I’m ok with as a curator. Art can and should be viewed in different ways and in different places, and I also think its important to showcase a project that has such a history with the city of Detroit in a Detroit institution. Not that it makes it more legitimate, but that its recognized in a new context. However, I think that MOCAD is probably also encouraging visitors to go to the Heidelberg Project as well as see the exhibition in their space.

Do you feel the meaning of the work is altered in any way by moving it from its original context into the traditional gallery space that attempts to present itself as neutral and context-free? 

Yes, I think it changes things. Even though MOCAD is more of a raw space and has the history of being an auto-dealership, it still is a museum, with white walls and object labels. That is drastically different from the context in which the work was made. And it does then create a conversation about ‘the other’ and taking objects–whether they are art or cultural or both–out of their original locations and putting them on display. But also, as I mentioned above, I do think its important to celebrate the history and importance of this project in places that aren’t just Heidelberg Street.

How do you feel the Heidelberg Project acts as a model for understanding the relationship between site-specific public works of art, and the contemporary wave of gentrification in U.S. cities?

I think the Heidelberg Project acts as a bit of a tension rod between the two. Its a powerful statement about a neighborhood and city and acts as a place of gathering when those are being lost in so many cities. Yet, gentrification often happens quickly when creatives and others spend time in neighborhoods and contribute to the everyday life of that place. Developers and others see that and swoop in to (most times) take advantage of the energy and pretty soon its likely an unrecognizable place. But I don’t know if the HP is the right model to combat rapid gentrification, due to the guerrilla nature of how it began. I do think its worth thinking about what they want HP to be in the future and that is a place where there is more buy-in from other community stakeholders that can help preserve the power or art and creativity that the HP brings while also moving forward with improving the neighborhood through several channels.

 What do you believe are the responsibilities of the curator in displaying site-specific outside of its original site?

When working with site-specificity, technically, you really cannot display it outside of its original site without completely changing the work. So, if that is the case, then documentation is extremely important. However, in many cases, that strict definition is not always followed to a T. With this project, I’d have to speak more with Tyree, but I think the project as a whole being on and around Heidelberg Street is more important that individual pieces were to a specific location within the project. So in that case, the works in MOCAD are just part of the larger project and when put into context with didactic materials, for me, its not so much of an issue. But again, I encourage all to visit the site of the project as that is really where the power, I believe, lies.

Museums and galleries are historically embedded in issues of Western imperialism and colonialism, if the Heidelberg Project represents public art as an act of rebellion, is this rebellious act whitewashed in any way by being subsumed into traditional art institutions? 

The Heidelberg Project already exists within a Western country and context. It was produced under that history and is not being plucked from a site that is now being colonized or was colonized recently. While of course some of the issues that the project addresses are issues of imperialism and colonialism, I don’t know if its being whitewashed by being displayed in the museum. I think its better to look at is as a historical yet contemporary reaction to a city and showcasing that at MOCAD is almost like putting any historical object on display. But then again, maybe everything we display in museums is whitewashed and we really need to rethink the museum space and how it functions in relation to the people it may or may not serve.

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