The Detritus of Detroit: Both Maddening and Inspiring

The materials that Design 99 use in their artworks might scare you a little. The Detroit-based collaborative, made up of artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, often source abandoned houses in their city for raw material. For their Creative Capital project, Garbage Totem 2, for instance, will include old tires, used mattresses and couches abandoned in their neighborhood to create sculptures and installations. Last year Mitch attended our Creative Capital retreat and explained his process and discoveries.

We followed up to ask more about what Design 99 is working on currently.

Alex Teplitzky: When we heard from Mitch at the Artist Retreat, you were working on cleaning up the former house of Larry, a massive hoarder. He had 4 generations of material in his house, not to mention excrement of different kinds. What was that process like, and what’s happened to the house since then?

Mitch Cope: It was a very dirty and surreal process because we were not just simply dumping the contents of the house, but carefully sifting through it in search of artistic-archeological treasures. We were looking for things that spoke about the people that lived in the house, specifically Larry who was a friend and neighbor and died in the house. There was a lot of family memorabilia, but there was an incredible amount of inanimate objects carefully stacked and stored everywhere as if they were magnetized to the house. This is really interesting to us as artists, because after all, artists create things that seem to come from nowhere, don’t always have a logical reason for existing and yet can be powerful just by allowing them to be highlighted and elevated through the context of art. The same can be said for a hoarder and their things, the difference is their things are never meant to be seen beyond their own makers.

Alex: After the retreat, I had an interesting conversation about your presentation. At first, the idea of projects of renovation and taking as raw material the waste of neighborhoods of Detroit made me uneasy. But upon further reflection, I remembered that concepts like “renovation” and “gentrification” mean totally different things for people who live in Brooklyn and those who live in Detroit. I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that Detroit has over 90,000 abandoned buildings, which is unimaginable to me. Can you speak more on these topics?

Mitch: Yes, the term gentrification has been coming up a lot lately in Detroit, but it mostly is being discussed by New York transplants or people new to the city. There are some neighborhoods in Detroit that haven’t seen ANY level of investment in over 4, 5, 6 decades – so people getting a little snotty about finally seeing investments in the city as a bad thing have never really seen what long term disinvestment does to a community.

On the other hand there is a phenomenon people are referring to as “two Detroits”, which is a privileged, mostly white Detroiter and an excluded, mostly under privileged black Detroiter within these new investments. This also shouldn’t surprise people who know the history of racism in the city, but it still goes to show that we haven’t learned much from the mistakes of the past.

The city really is a big place, and much of it is gone, so new development is needed if it is going to survive. The problem really is that opportunities are not raising people up and making us of the incredibly diverse skills and talents found in the general population within the city. I’m not sure if people are really being pushed out to the extremes in other cities, there just seems to be a greater opportunity here that is being missed to be able to develop the city in a more unique way. For many years the city’s leaders wanted to imitate the developments found within in other cities and even the suburbs. Luckily these kinds of developments of mostly failed. My hope is that Detroit can retain its integrity and spirit while it also is able to grow again.


Mitch Cope – “Garbage Totem, Eddy’s Pile,” 2014

Alex: Tell me about the photographs that are on view right now at the David Klein Gallery?

Mitch: The Garbage Totem Photographs are a way to show the origins and inspiration of the Garbage Totem project. Piles of garbage in the neighborhood can be pretty maddening, but they are also really fascinating in social and archeological terms and at times aesthetically. So there is a tension between being repulsed and attracted to heaps of garbage that the photos show.

But that’s only the surface layer: what’s really going on is that they reveal a hidden layer within the debris, strange creatures exist within the frame of the photographs that were not there when I took the picture. At least they were not seen by the naked eye, but apparently were seen by the chemicals on the film negative through the lens of the camera. Are these creatures bad, evil, good? Why do they seem to hover over the garbage? Are they guarding it? Or are they upset by it? Did they attract the garbage?
The photographs have more questions than answers. The Garbage Totem Project is a long term multi-layered project, with each layer being its own individual art entity. The photos are the first layer.


Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert as Design 99

Alex: You seem to have such an interesting connection to Detroit and its denizens, especially in terms of your art practice. What was it like growing up there, living there now, and what does it mean for your work to have such an inextricable relationship to the city?

Mitch: It’s definitely a double-edged sword to have our work so closely tied to a place like Detroit that has such a strong image in peoples minds. Our work is very site-specific, but a good deal of it takes place in Detroit because that’s where we live. Detroit is more a metaphor for larger conversations about America that we would like to have. It’s less about there being a specific local place and more about who we are as a people. Because Detroit is THE iconic American city. From its rise, to its fall and now to its resurgence and its continued struggles, every aspect of American life is in hyper drive in Detroit—the economy, race relations, the rich, the poor, architecture, art and music—they are seen here distilled down into a range of extremes.

Growing up here was very normal to me, it’s where I grew up. One has no idea that maybe it’s not normal, or maybe there’s a better place or a worse place—it’s all you know. It’s only after traveling and experiencing the world do you realize that it’s not really normal. There is so much injustice here and so much beauty at the same time it is really hard to imagine making work any place else. Again the layers of Americana are just so rich and so apparent in everything that happens within the city, whether they are a good thing or not. But again I don’t really see us as Detroit artists, it just happens to be the material at hand at the moment.