Everything, Nothing

October 5, 2008

One-thirty in the morning, walking down Woodward. My friend and I have just emerged from St. Andrew’s after a night of futuro-nihilistic anti-sexy Detroit electroclash. Heading back toward Wayne State’s campus, each block greets us with a new follower, each a new kind of alien: one mumbles, limps, cranes his neck up from the end of his bent spine; the next raps and sings with a bounce in his step. Each wants just a couple bucks, my brother, just some loose change, help a brother out.

Militaristic beats still pound in my brain. Lifeless but potent cadences conduct my midnight stroll: through filthy streets, among ignoble beggars. I cannot help but think of a post-industrial wasteland. To a suburban visitor, late-night Detroit feels like London in 28 Days Later – abandoned, trashed, dripping with threat.

Something otherworldly floats toward us, stirring me from my reverie. A message in neon over the city’s most elaborately graffitied facade:


At first I cannot believe my eyes. It seems like something out of a dream. But my friend assures me – this sign is here every day. Beggar and businessman alike endure this mockery each day as they wander through a ruined city.

This experience was my first exposure to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The sign’s message stuck with me as I grew closer to the city. As I came to understand that in many ways, the city was thriving, that whispers of “Detroit is coming back” are heard downtown and throughout suburbia, I let myself feel fortified by the installation’s empty promise. Of course I knew that “Everything” would not be alright. But I welcomed this note of optimism in a city as downtrodden as Detroit.

Three weeks ago, a new sign went up. Martin Creed’s piece was replaced by a new one by Sislej Xhafa, identical in medium, changing only one word. “NOTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” now fiercely burns over Woodward. It’s a painful switch for anyone who liked the last sign – its disillusionment is so profound that it recasts Creed’s piece as sarcasm, or worse: the hollow promise of a politician, the empty coos of an indulgent parent.

With some mental acrobatics, one can rework the meaning of these signs. A recent post by a MOCAD employee on the Discuss Detroit forums gives some insight into this approach:

The sign is an integral part of the current exhibit “Business as Usual,” because it offers an anti-materialist sentiment expressed in the idea that we can survive on very little, even “nothing,” in a consumerist sense. For creative people, like the thousands in Detroit creating urban agricultural environments (for example), this may be taken as a reflection on living on a lot less than the “average consumer,” and still not only surviving but thriving. This city is, in fact, full of many people who find inspiration in looking beyond the perceived decay of the city and finding beauty in its regeneration. (http://metrotimes.com/arts/sto ry.asp?id=13268)

While it is not our intention to ignore the negative interpretations of its semantic meaning, because after all, it is a bold sentence on the facade of our building, we don’t want to ignore the more positive and thought-provoking potential that the sign possesses.

So with some clever semantics, you can rework the sign. “Nothing” is going to be alright – sure, the economy is collapsing, but we don’t need much, we’ll get by. Everything is going to be “alright” – just alright, nothing more.

But public art ought to be taken at face value, the way most Detroiters will see it. It’s tough to say how everyone will react, and part of the piece is obviously the discussion that it will inspire. To some, the last sign was mockery, and this one is a challenge. To others, even if only secretly, “Everything” was a comfort, and “Nothing” nags, to be endured.

I will say that the “Business as Usual” exhibit is fascinating, and ought to be explored before the sign is judged. I applaud MOCAD for having the guts to challenge the city with Xhafa’s piece.

Here’s some more of the MOCAD employee’s post, which was also quite interesting:

One of the most important things to note is that neither this sign, nor Martin Creed’s Everything is going to be alright were created as or intended to be a message by MOCAD (or the artists, for that matter) to the city of Detroit. In fact, these are traveling works of art that have been exhibited all over the world. (http://www.martincreed.com/wor ks/index.html) Xhafa, like many other artists, uses his work to respond not only to social issues, but also to the work of other artists. In Rome (above the Belgian [Xhafa] and British [Creed] Academies in 2003), the two pieces were installed simultaneously, but in different locations. Here in Detroit, the opposite is true: they are installed in the same location, but in temporal sequence. This change means that the viewer’s memory of the earlier installation becomes a crucial element of the work.

Be sure to stop in, public tours are Wednesdays at 1pm, Saturdays at 1 pm and 4 pm and Sundays at noon!