03/26/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mitch Cope Protecting the Refuse at Popps Packing

Mitch Cope, Scrap-a-House, 2014. Archival ink jet print. (All images by Mitch Cope; courtesy of the artist.)

Artist and curator Mitch Cope is perhaps best known as one half, along with architect Gina Reichert, of Design 99, a collaborative project situated at the intersection of art and design, whose work in the Detroit neighborhood known as Banglatown has garnered international attention. Working with materials gathered as part of Design 99's neighborhood interventions, Cope mounted a show of his own at Popps Packing that reflects upon the work he has been doing with Reichert over the past few years. And where the many projects of Design 99 focus on the ameliorative potential of design, i.e., the way in it which can be deployed to solve a variety of problems, here Cope foregrounded the more expressive aspects of art.

The exhibition consisted of seven large-scale black-and-white photographs originally shot on 35mm negatives and digitally transferred.There were also two installation pieces, one of which included a video done under the auspices of Design 99.The photographs document the stockpiles of refuse that litter the neighborhood in which Cope and Reichert work and the installations use some of that material in their construction. The photographs assiduously document every bit of refuse appearing within the frame in the manner of an archeologist taking inventory of every shard of material culture uncovered at a dig site. (Example: Eddy's Pile, 2014: "1 shopping cart with vacuum parts, various Jeep car parts, 1 kid's push car, 3 black sofas, 1 cushy chair, 1 stool, 1 dresser, 2 baby mattresses, 1 playpen, assorted garbage, boys and girls clothing, various plastic bins, paperwork, miscellaneous VHS tapes, several yogurt cups, 1 TV.") The installations works are equally precise in their documenting of their components.

Steve's Pile, 2014. Archival ink jet print.

A conspicuous aspect of the photographs are the apparitions that appear above the junk in each. They evoke the spirits of long lost civilizations or perhaps the more recent traces of paranormal ectoplasm etched into Victorian-era photographs. In essence, they're avatars of the extinguished collective memories of the wasted lives that have been cast into the abyss, along with their dispossessions, as part of capital's insatiable need for profit that for the better part of five decades has wreaked devastation on Detroit. One particularly haunting image is Ottoman, 2014, a lone piece of furniture sitting in the middle of the street at night with a faint ghost image in the background. The image is gritty with white spots scattered across the surface dropping out photographic detail, reminding me of the photographs Yosuke Yamahata took the day after the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, which registered the lingering presence of nuclear radiation in their reticulated emulsion. (Yamahata later died of cancer, likely from radiation poisoning.) Here the fallout is economic not military but palpable nonetheless.

The installations seemingly focused more directly on the physical artifact. Scrap-a-House Totem, 2014, set five interlocking shopping carts on end, reaching up to the ceiling, atop of which sat a charred recliner and a rocker held in place with a ratchet strap. The installation of a wing back chair set on linoleum flooring and truck tire for Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011, was actually constructed so as to provide a perch from which to view a 20-minute video documenting the retrieval of castoff mattresses from around the neighborhood and their installation on a dead pine tree spike in an exercise of repurposing the refuse of life into the refuge of art.

In both instances, the reference to the totem is formal, a description of the stacking procedure. And yet at the same time it gestures toward a mythopoetic understanding of the totem that, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (who also gave us the useful concept of bricolage*) suggests, might serve to help make comprehensible the disconnect between the natural and the social worlds. In this case, what one might see as the disconnect is the failed promise of the profit motive, the so-called invisible hand, and its ruinous effects as witnessed on the ground in Banglatown and elsewhere in Detroit.

Design 99, Garbage Totem #1: Clearing a Path to the Future, 2011. (5-minute excerpt of a 20-minute video.)

The practice of bricolage by the avant-garde in the form of Cubist collage and the Dadaist readymade predates by several decades Levi-Strauss's use of the term in his 1962 book The Savage Mind. But Levi-Strauss's use of it in contrast to the concept of  the Engineer, in describing the difference between traditional practice and modern scientific thought, brought it into the lexicon of cultural studies where it has been retroactively applied.

"Mitchell Cope: Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse" is on view until Saturday, March 27, 2014, at Popp's Packing, 12138 St. Aubin, Hamtramck.