07/12/2012 04:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2012

Companion MOCAD Exhibitions Debate the Future

Installation view of  Vertical Urban Factory, 2012, showing the Ford Model T assembly line in 1913. (All photos by Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.)

While most art institutions have wound down for the summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has been busy cranking things up. The companion exhibitions now on view, Vertical Urban Factory and Post-Industrial Complex, are arguably the most timely and thought-provoking in recent memory. Running through it all is the simple yet profound question: "Who owns the future?" This question not only applies to Detroit, although arguably this is the place where its implications are most starkly presented, but to the United States and indeed to the rest of the world. The exhibitions capture a dialectic of opposing forces at work in the city as it looks to reboot for the twenty-first century.

One force is working from the top down and it's what might be termed the "Techno Utopia." The other works from the bottom up and can be called the "Postindustrial Arcadia." The former seeks to catch the wave of postmodern capitalism; the latter exists if not in outright opposition then at least in resistance to it. One reinforces the typical gentrification model, the use of the so-called creative economy to drive speculation and investment, basically the purview of what post-OWS is known as the 1 percent. The other operates within the cracks of the capitalist system to open up new ways of thinking and living for rest of us. Tied together, the shows explore the potential for realizing what sociologist Eric Olin Wright terms "the real utopia."

The summer exhibition (Vertical Urban Factory  and Post Industrial Complex are a curatorial yin and yang and thus need to be discussed as a single case study) pick up a narrative that began five years ago with the Shrinking Cities project, exhibited at MOCAD in conjunction with Cranbrook Art Museum. In that exhibition and its surrounding research, Detroit was posited as an extreme example of the abandonment of the urban environment in the wake of the demise of the modern mass industrial system AKA Fordism. 

Shrinking Cities is not the first effort at documenting this phenomenon. In the late 1990s, a group of architects, urban planners and theorists converged on the city to study the psychogeography of its dissolution and produce the book Stalking Detroit, published in 2001, which still stands as required reading. Before that, Camillo Jose Vergara published his documentary photographic essays New American Ghetto, 1995, and American Ruins, 1999. In 1989, a team of Cranbrook architecture students, James Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, Terrence Van Elslander, Jean-Claude Azar, and Michael Williams, working under the direction of then architect-in-residence Dan Hoffman, produced 9119 St. Cyril Street that disassembled an abandoned bungalow on the city's east side and reinstalled it in piles in the Willis Gallery. They also guest edited a 1991 issue of New Observations magazine under the title "Editing Detroit."

Taken together, this first move is what one might call the deconstructionist phase of conceptualizing the evolution (or devolution as the case may be) of Detroit. It examined patterns of demassification, the rise of spectacle, and other manifestations amenable to postmodern critique. Its recent fetishization is the genre known as "ruin porn." (Kind of a stupid term actually, but if looked at through the lens of the feminist media theory concept of scopophilia, it's serviceable enough.)

The second chapter was the exhibition two years ago co-curated by then MOCAD Director and Chief Curator Luis Croquer titled Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism, inspired by the work of visionary French architect Yona Friedman. Taking its cue from Friedman's 1958 manifesto, Mobile Architecture, a user-centric model of the built environment adaptable to the ever-changing needs of what would come to be known as postmodern society, an architecture that would tread lightly on the earth, going with the flows of an emerging global cultural economy, "Spatial Cities" was a thought experiment in different ways of approaching the built environment in Detroit and elsewhere in the shadow of the regime of post-Fordism. It was an iteration of aesthetic community, as understood in the work of Jacques Ranciere,  a conscious collective of ideas that acknowledges what is coupled with a vision of what could be.

The current MOCAD offering is a new phase, one that really gets down to brass tacks.

Vertical Urban Factory, installation view.
Techno Utopia: Vertical Urban Factory
" Vertical Urban Factory is an expansive investigation into the structure, ideology and social effects of the modern capitalist political economy as seen through the evolution of the production system, which has increasingly come to dominate all aspects of everyday life. A team of designers and fabricators worked under the direction of curator and critic Nina Rappaport and graphic designer Sarah Gephart of MGMT. Design. The arrangement of wall texts, architectural models and other objects is a fine example of museum installation as an art form and in particular the power of graphic design to visually organize and present complex information in a readily comprehensive way.

Entry into the exhibition starts with a display panel that explains the project's underlying strategy of focusing on the design, structure, and economics of multistory factories and their impact on the urban environment. As an expression of the modernist dictum form follows function, factories in the modern mass manufacturing system were initially conceived on one of two prototypes, integrated and layered. Integrated factories trace the progression of assembly work from start to finish either following gravity, working from the top floors down, or in defiance of it, working from the bottom floors up. Famous examples of the former include Henry Ford's Model T factory built in 1910 in Highland Park and of the latter the Fiat factory built in 1928 in Turin. Layered factories organize primarily batch work on each floor, the lofts of New York City and other urban areas being examples. Later in the century, work will come to be organized horizontally in the sprawling production facilities of the suburban and exurban areas that will contribute to the abandonment of inner cities such as Detroit.

On the wall across the way is detailed timeline on the history of labor that comes right out of chapter 10 of Karl Marx's Capital, which discusses the working day. The wall panels trace the struggles between labor and management over the course of modern capitalism with notes on technical innovations and other landmark events inserted along the way. An introductory graphic compares the wages and hours of workers at the height of the Industrial Revolution in mid-nineteenth century England, the introduction of the high wage/high output model of Fordism in the early twentieth century and Chinese workers today. Expressed in today's dollars, an English textile worker in 1842 made $81 a week whereas a Ford employee in 1914 effectively made $688 a week. (By contrast the current UAW-GM contract starts workers out at $600 for a 40-hour week.) Chinese workers today make about $209 a week. They also put many more weekly work hours than their American counterparts. These statistics further give evidence for another chapter in Capital, namely chapter 16 on absolute and relative surplus value.

Working off David Ricardo's labor theory of value, which argues that the value of a good is proportionally related to the labor needed to produce or obtain it, Marx devised the concept of surplus value upon which capitalist exploitation of workers is based. Simplistically, workers in the capitalist system are compelled to contribute more of their labor power to producing commodities than is actually required due to the monopolization of the means of production by owners. Marx further distinguishes between absolute and relative surplus value, i.e., that which results from the expenditure of pure labor power and that which is leveraged by technological innovation. One of the great inventions of modernity in that regard is the moving assembly line, which as Terry Smith outlines in his brilliant analysis of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry mural cycle, 1932-33, is a gigantic infernal machine for harvesting surplus labor power, so much so that Ford was able to double his workers wages, substantially reduce the price of his product, and still become one of the richest men of the Industrial Age.

The rub, however, is that relative surplus value is unsustainable over the long run and exploitation must revert to absolute surplus value to ensure continued capital accumulation. Mainstream economists (read: capitalist apologists) generally discredit the Marxist labor theory of value, and yet the evidence of the wage and work week graphs in Vertical Urban Factory suggests that a major contribution to corporate profits in recent decades has come from outsourcing production to substantially cheaper labor pools in China and other parts of the world.

Vertical Urban Factory, installation view showing "Future Factory" display.

The rest of the exhibition comprises a visual ethnography of historical and current production zones in the United States, Europe, and emerging economies primarily in East Asia. Ultimately, the project embraces the Techno Utopia, optimistically arguing that architects, engineers, and urban designers can help to "integrate industry with everyday life, creating self-sufficient and sustainable cities." This will be accomplished primarily through creative economy solutions that are greener, more flexible, convergent and connected. Unfortunately, broad application of many of these ideas, however admirable, depends on  capital investment for which there is little incentive in the existing environment of so-called strategic dynamism.