The City as Body: In Conversation with Michael Stone-Richards

Michael Stone-Richards is Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Studies at the College for Creative Studies, Detroit. He is the recipient of a Warhol Foundation Grant for his book in progress, Care of the City: Ruination, Abandonment, and Hospitality in Contemporary Practice (forthcoming, Sternberg Press) in which the question of collapse in the transmission of value is a key question. This is part of Michael’s work as Chair of the Committee on Critical Studies at CCS seeking the terms of a pedagogy for the twenty-first century Art / Design School. Michael is also the founding editor of Detroit Research, of which volume 3 On Sound / with featured artist Kevin Beasley is due out Fall 2020.

Could you tell me a bit about your class at CCS, Care of the City? What sort of readings are on the syllabus in a class like that? Is it a studio class?

No, at least not officially. It could be, and in my ideas for how this might develop it would be a joint Studio | Humanities | Research practice of the kind pursued in Visual and Critical Studies at SAIC. The most talented students want this kind of practice very much. We have a new chair in Fine Arts, Valerie Jenkins, who is interested in such an approach. By the way, let me give you a little bit of history. Without going into the weeds, when this class was first created 2010-2011 the then chair of Fine Arts and I worked closely together and we intentionally created a studio version of “Care of the City” which was then taught by a very talented artist-thinker, Kate Daughdrill, who started Burnside Farms in Hamtramck. The first thing I would say is that “Care of the City” was an attempt to introduce post-studio practice to CCS, based upon, but not exclusively about, Detroit. Second, it was also inspired by the fact that a number of the most well-known artists in the city, people who were getting a lot of attention outside Detroit – Tyree Guyton for the Heidelberg Project, Mitch Cope and his wife Gina Reichert of the Powerhouse Productions, Scott Hocking for his post-studio installation art – these are all alumni of our school. The president of CCS at the time, Rick Rogers, pointed this out to the then incoming chair of Fine Arts, because we were getting a lot attention in the New York Times – there were a few years when every few weeks Detroit was being discussed in the New York Times, and whenever the art scene was discussed it was Kate Daughdrill and her Detroit SOUP (whom we brought in to teach Studio and Humanities), it was Mitch Cope, Tyree Guyton, Scott Hocking, etc. Some of us thought this would be a very interesting way to get our students to have a more expansive idea of contemporary practice and develop new mental habits and conceptual repertoires. Also from my point of view, when I arrived in Detroit in 2006, I took four or five years in an intentional manner to learn about Detroit and its recent cultural histories, to learn what was going on, and it struck me as perfectly obvious that, with certain well-known exceptions, that the most urgent practices in the contemporary scene of Detroit were post-studio, broadly speaking, and then social practice. There was a time between 2008 and 2013 when all anybody could talk about was social practice, including many people who clearly resented a lot of the attention social practice was getting—“What is this thing social practice? Why is it art, anyway?”—it cut right across the generations. But it struck me that this was now the most urgent thing going on and when I started to teach the class “Care of the City” I noticed that within the first three or four weeks, once we got over the hump of the introduction– “Why is this art?” is a question— I noticed how excited these students were, and I did not see these students as excited in many of their regular studio classes. There was a sense of urgency, a sense of engagement, a sense of, to put it very simply, art could mean something. I cannot emphasize this too much, how many students suddenly felt that they are no longer doing little exercises, that something matters.

Given my background in modernism – I was as modernist as they come – my work was dominated by the nature of the relationship between philosophy, art and poetry, and the cultural and ethical role of the avant-garde, and my contribution was to look at the avant-garde as a philosophical phenomenon, and I could fairly be said not to be interested in social practice, at least until I came to Detroit. And once I started to look into it I realized that social practice was a form of art practice that one could find in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, places that had undergone a post-industrial voiding out and collapse of sociality. I started looking into the history and the theory of social practice. I had some ideas and I started to use the class as a laboratory for understanding the history and developing ideas of practice – not only social practice, but spatial practices, and I started to ask myself a question: What is the subject of social practice? When I look at a still-life of apples by Cézanne, obviously apples are not the subject. Well, there’s the artistic subject– likewise, when I look at endless numbers of still-life paintings of flowers, flowers aren’t the subject, flowers are what’s depicted—what is the artistic subject and how would I get at that subject, especially where the idea of medium is no longer something with physical properties and delimited to be looked at? And through a series of investigations and questions with my CCS students I came to explore the idea that the subject of social practice is care, it is a care of the city. Here’s my abbreviated form: That in certain moments of crisis we come to experience the city as a kind of body, and that in those moments of crisis, when the embodiment factor/dimension in the city is presented to us, in those moments of crisis we then begin to care, and when we begin to care we think of the city as a body, as a body in need of care, in need of active engagement. My example would be that you and I live in a world where we are constantly getting requests for donations to good causes, and there are times when all they really need from you is a check. But there are other times when what is needed is one’s presence, what is needed is one’s active engaged attention. (Fundamentally, care and attention are synonyms.) This is in times of crisis, or deep distress. My standard example says, “Let’s look at what happens in natural disasters.” Because the first thing I have to do conceptually is to express what is care, and I start by saying that care is not love. We cannot love what or whom we don’t know. But we manifestly can care for things and people that we do not know. Every time there is some natural disaster, be it the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, the miners who are lost in Chile, be it Katrina, be it the Tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, we suddenly care (about strangers, and foreign places with which we have no personal connection or history). And Heidegger has this remarkable expression in Being and Time where he speaks of a, “collapse of familiarity”– Being and Time is the work that says that not only is time the fundamental aspect of human existence, but the key to understanding time is care. It’s the philosophy more than any other that says that care is fundamental to human existence and indeed philosophical activity. And Heidegger says that care is revealed in radical anxiety. Radical anxiety comes about when there is a collapse of familiarity. And care for Heidegger is this sense of radical exposure that leads to an interrelatedness that makes us think about the future, or indeed the fact that we may not have a future. Care is this sense of exposure.

The other thing I say is that care is not dominion. I start with theology, with a theologian called Ellen Davis who wrote a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. I start with the way in which she is a part of a group of theologians who say that we need to re-translate scripture, because we need to get away from this idea that God gave us dominion. God does not give us dominion. We are given a charge to care for creation. The problem with dominion is that it is linked to power and possession and leads to a kind of idolatry of private property—I can do with mine whatever I like—and this way of thinking of private property applies to human relationships as well. And what has happened is that in the development of modernity we have dropped out of historically received religion, but the religiosity of property has continued. What we worship now is property, or as Guy Debord would say, “our Old Friend [i.e., Satan] the commodity” offered by the spectacle. In other words, pure idolatry. So, dominion needs to go because it is part of an idolatry of property – it is that dimension of modernity where the secular religiosity exceeds religion, indeed, is out of control. It is not first and foremost to do with the enigma of existence and possible divinity, it’s that we feel that we have a religious sanction for possession except that what has happened in the development of modernity is that the religious sanction has gone into a secularized sanctification of private property. So we need to go back to the source, where did we get this idea that we can do with ours whatever we wish, and what Davies proposes is that a new translation would make clear not only that there is no sanction of dominion we must also evacuate the vertical idea of sovereignty linked to dominion, and enter a horizontal set of relationships (an ecology, in other words) where no one is more important than any other from the human to the non-human creature. Within such an ecology, because our historical intervention has has done irreparable harm to creation, our charge is to care.

And lastly, care comes from retreat. And the word retreat is a translation of the French word retrait, used by Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe, which means retreat, withdrawal, voiding, collapsing. In other words, now when we find ourselves in a context of the collapse of structures, the voiding of structures, the withdrawal – or extraction – of resources, which is what leads to the ruined structures of post-industrial environments like Detroit, once we have this massive withdrawal of resources, that’s when we begin to care – hence, in the title of an article I wrote for e-flux Architecture, care comes in the wake of retreat. That’s when we begin to see the fragility of our environment, which is now like the fragility of a body. And my insight was to say, “this is something that social practice has acted on.” Social practice is predicated on the city as a body. It is predicated on the withdrawal of resources. It is predicated on the collapse of structures and practices. And social practice is an attempt to re-engage the city, the body, to try to give us certain models of what it might be to mend, to repair our world so that we might continue to live in it as well as we can. (Here I draw upon the work of feminist theorists of care, especially Carol Gilligan and Joan Tronto.)

Photography by Addie Langford, c/o Michael Stone-Richards

I took a class within the Visual Studies program at my school that was fairly similar, entitled Civic Studio. I’m curious if there was any overlap in material. We read a lot of Lefebvre, David Harvey, Jane Jacobs, Michel de Certeau, a lot of explicitly Marxist stuff. Does the class engage politics pretty directly?

The names that you mention are people whom I refer to continuously – especially Jane Jacobs and Michel de Certeau. Michel de Certeau is much more important to me than Henri Lefebvre. When I started out in the first three, four years, the class was an introduction to social practice. Before I arrived at CCS, I had a fellowship at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montréal during its first year, 1997-98. My work has always engaged with architecture discourse, and in particular Guy Debord and the phenomenology of space, spatial practice, though at first I thought this was going to be too advanced for most of my students, but I came to realize that the work I had done on spatial practice was absolutely relevant, indeed, it was one of the moments where the students’ engagement lead me back to my own work! There’s a guy called Markus Miessen you may have heard of. He is one of the leading practitioners of spatial practice. Miessen has always been aggressive towards social practice. He thinks there is something pious about it. He feels that the emphasis in social practice on listening to what “the community” wants (and it’s noteworthy how facile it is for everybody to speak in the name of The Community), only responding to The Community’s needs is passive and denies the role of conflict in all social negotiations. Surely this makes sense – that we should listen to what people say they need, especially when we see how second-rate design work manages to get people to want exactly what the designers were already trained to deliver! But equally, Miessen has a point, too: for the conventional accounts of social practice denied something fundamental about conflict and the nature of conflict in human relationships, and that every social configuration is the result of spatial configurations in a history of conflict. Miessen has moderated his tone a little bit in the last couple of years, but he was profoundly against the idea of social practice and the idea of participation (see, for example, his book The Nightmare of Participation) since per se participation is not inherently liberatory. At that point I started to say that social practice cannot make sense without linking it to biopolitics and spatial practice. Once we started looking at spatial practice, then of course Michel de Certeau and The Practice of Everyday Life was absolutely necessary.

Michel de Certeau enables one to understand the way in which the things social practice engages with are of their nature aesthetic. It’s based upon certain kinds of repetition, it’s based upon a spirit of sensuousness. I think what Michel de Certeau does more than Harvey and Lefebvre – and Jane Jacobs already knows this, the Jacobs who spoke of the movements in the city as a dance – is that he grasped the way in which the repetition that we call habit is the way the social and cultural world is created (the French title reads not “the practice of everyday life” but “the invention of the everyday”), hence in volume 2 of The Practice of Everyday Life called Living, Cooking such humble activities are not less important than, say, art schools or museums in understanding aesthetic phenomena … this volume has has become important to me for the final chapter of my projected book is a theory of the significance of the meal in contemporary art and practice. When you look at the splendid exhibition catalogue of the exhibition from just a few years ago called Feast, and when you look at Theaster Gates and the meal, there cannot be any doubt that we are dealing with a process that is a work of art. I’m not saying that every meal at home is prepared with the care of a Theaster Gates meal, but what I think de Certeau enables us to see is that the act of repetition that builds the world is also an aesthetic act. And even the modest acts of repetition that we call habit, they create environments, and these are environments of welcome, environments of hospitality, these are environments that are fundamentally aesthetic. What it is that social practice does, or artists like Rirkrit Tiranavija or Suzanne Lacy do, is that they frame it. The frame is what makes it art. It becomes something not only reflected upon, but it becomes a medium of reflection. And that is for me the moment when social practice becomes art, the moment that it becomes a medium of reflection and embodied, durational attentiveness. And I think Michel de Certeau is saying, when he talks about living, and inhabiting, as well as habits, he is saying these acts are aesthetic acts because they build a world and they facilitate processes of hospitality and become media of reflection.

“Beauty is in the street” (May ’68 poster)

The idea of framing a meal, the idea that social practice is framing these everyday acts makes sense to me, but I’ve also understood social practice to be the removal of the frame, the idea that we are stepping outside of the gallery, getting rid of the vitrine between the art object and the rest of the world, to just have the object in the world.

The frame is conceptual. There are two things here: the frame and the medium. We very easily say that we are in a post-medium world, and I know what people are trying to get at, but the medium has never been simply a thing with physical properties (oil, stone, the letter); the medium is wherever transference takes place, wherever there is work and a memory (Marcel Proust) or imago (Adrian Stokes) latent in the duration and movement of work. So here with social practice, we are dealing with work. Work is something that generates transference—the Lacanian concept of a transfer de travail, “the transference of work”, helps us here, for when we work on or with something, we develop relationships to it that are no longer merely contingent – e.g., I may say: I do this because I earn money; no, I hate it, I love it, or, I put up with it. The longer I stay with it (duration and movement) the less possible is it to be neutral. Durational work is here the equivalent of the transference, a phenomenon of aisthesis. The frame is conceptually interacting with medium. The frame comes about the moment we decide we have an object that we can identifiably discuss. The frame is linked to attention and hence what Freud (in the older translation) called hyper-cathexis. Western art has had this thing where from the physical frame to the conceptual frame, we’ve been able to develop this incredibly complex discourse because of the idea of the physical frame which was unique to Western art. But at another level, framing takes place the moment we have an object of attention, and the object of attention in the case of social practice is now linked to an extended way of understanding the medium.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You may like