It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.
Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.
But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).
We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.
And we went to the Lightbox.
Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.
I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.
Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.
Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.
Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?
The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.
After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.
What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.
This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.
(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)
We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.
In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.
We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.
What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?
The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.
Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.
This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.
That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.