On the heart

of America, at its industrial core, a rot festers -a malignant reminder of past crimes of dispossession. Detroit, Motor City -its name is emblematic of the spark of industrial and popular culture. Yet its city centre is a ruin, haunted by its 1967 race riots and subsequent white flight. Here is an urban myth of epic scale -the destruction of America's fourth largest city. But Detroit exists in our imagination as an absence, rarely examined in art (notwithstanding the macabre law-and-order Frankensteinism of the movie Robocop). Until now.

Like Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables, built on the ground of some grievous wrong, Detroit -as Marie Hamlin's 1883 Legends of Le Detroit chronicles- pays for the crimes of its founding. What else could explain its strange abandonment, an expulsion that makes Detroit a city of haunted houses? Was the evacuation perhaps inevitable with the erosion of the city's tax base as industry moved to the suburbs, even in advance of Detroit's ruinous Black Day in July?
Abject, present-day Detroit is the subject of Stan Douglas's most recent project, typically researched in a stunning series of large-scale colour photographs. The work, produced in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Windsor, was made mainly during 1997-98. Once again, in Le Detroit Douglas takes on the failed utopias of modernism, now as disaster zone. Here, utopia is in reverse. These photographs reveal a return to a pastoral past, yet it is a return haunted by the knowledge of epic ruin. Le Detroit thus synthesizes the modernist urban schemes of Douglas's Win, Place or Show (199) and the Gothic underpinnings of his Nu*tka* (1996). The Gothic is familiar territory for Douglas. As he wrote in regard to Nu*tka*, "the Gothic romance was typically characterized by a return of the repressed: some past transgression haunts, then destroys, the culpable person, family or social order."

Some of these photographs are surreal, such as Michigan Theatre with its vaulted canopy hanging, like the Roman ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, over a retrofitted parking lot. Others are uncanny, particularly those that combine the archaic appeal of past aesthetics with signs of entropy, as in the pastoral images of Victorian houses occupying sparse village grounds that were once jostling urban grids (Home Beside Jefferson Junior High). Some photographs document the failures of automotive titans of the past (Packard Plant and Trinity Cemetery), though none show the big three (GM, Ford or Chrysler).

Civic efforts at urban redevelopment are revealed as a different violence to the city's past, as in images that disclose the forced creation of an entertainment district: Gem Theatre depicts the historic building being wheeled to a new site. Also presented is the encroachment of new residential development at the edge of an impoverished, decrepit and dangerous neighbourhood. Eastern Border of Indian Village, whose title refers to a historic native settlement, suggests that the present repeats the past -- that the ground is a palimpsest of a site's unspoken history of expulsion (Natives in the past, the poor in the present) and that borders, whether between contiguous sites or past and present, are liminal zones fraught with overt or covert conflict. From monuments to civic endeavour (Michigan Central Station to attempts at enlightened public housing that served only to segregate class and race (Row Houses at Herman Gardens), here is the record of projects abandoned to ruin and depredation .

The housing project Herman Gardens is also the setting for Douglas's double film projection Le Detroit (1999). Workers' terrace housing in garden tracts is a legacy of the utopian socialism of the 19th century and the social engineering of the 20th. To set a horror story in its ruins is natural -- after all, the picturesque and the horrific commingle in the cultural imagination. (Consider that Horace Walpole's elysian retreat, Strawberry Fields, could elicit a Castle of Otranto.)
If Marie Hamlin's Legends of Le Detroit offers an explanation of the guilt for which the ruins of present-day Detroit seem perpetual and apt punishment, Shirley Jackson's famous 1959 horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, provides the theme for Douglas's film projection. Le Detroit is only one more addition to the long line of movies of haunted houses and poltergeists engendered by Jackson's novel. In it, Douglas's protagonist, a young black woman, visits the precipitously abandoned yet still furnished Herman Gardens at night. Passing through rooms that seem to have a spirit of their own -- closet doors open and close, etc. -- she searches between the walls of an upstairs bedroom for some hidden object. Startled, she abandons her search to return to her car, only to begin again, through an edit in the film, her path to the house. In our second viewing, the footprint that greets her at her entry is now likely her own.
Douglas's narrative is inconclusive mainly because the horror trap that his protagonist inhabits is the film loop itself. Formal effects externalize the haunting. These special effects are produced by projecting, onto either side of a free-standing translucent screen, negative and positive versions of the film, out of sync by a couple of frames. The resulting quasi-solarized ghostings shadow the action.
One projection shines through and possesses the other. The screen is thus one more of the liminal zones suggested by Douglas's title (detroit is the French word for a strait -- a narrow body of water between two land masses). Memory may be recuperated or repression lifted in such zones. In his film projection Douglas makes palpable what he could only point to in his photographs: the distressed possession of the present by the past.

from "Urban gothic: Philip Monk on Stan Douglas's Le Detroit"
copyright 2000 The Visual Arts Foundation

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