Detroit artist takes on German black hole

by Tori Pelz

I met Amy Smith Garofano in Africa when I was 16. We were both culture-vores who wanted to change the world. Not much has changed. Amy, now a visual artist, just graduated from Cranbrook. This week she joined a team of designers and architects to take part in a 72-hour urban design contest in Stuttgart, Germany.

If, you aren’t up to speed on Europe’s urban design brouhahas, then you may not be aware of the 30-year old contentious debate centered around Stuttgart, Germany. The site of a massive railway hub, Stuttgart 21 is Europe’s oldest redevelopment site.  Despite public outcry, demolition began last year to relocate the station’s railway underground. In the process, historic parks were demolished, politicians lost their jobs, and tangles of construction blockaded public access to the city’s creative hub known as Kunstverein Wagenhallenwhich houses a cultural center as well as art and design studios. Protests got ugly, and many Germans began to refer to the Stuttgart 21 debate as a “civil war.” Construction came to a halt. Now, local residents are confronted daily with a gaping hole that has come to symbolize the stalemate between politicians, the public, and developers.

Crowds watch as original Stuttgart station is demolished

International activist group, 72 Hour Urban Action (or 72HUA) was looking for a creative solution when it proposed a design competition to take on Stuttgart 21. In their words, 72HUA is

the world’s first real-time architecture competition, where 10 international teams have 3 days and 3 nights to design and build projects in public space in response to local needs. The teams design, build, sleep and party on site to generate interventions in public space within an extreme deadline, a tight budget and limited space.

All of this takes place in the public eye and aims to engage residents in addressing this urban design problem. Teams work with Kunstverein Wagenhallen and local authorities to execute their proposals. In light of the Occupy movements, Stuttgart is a refreshing model of civic action that encourages actual solutions. Their model is simple. Their genius is creating a context in which professional expertise informs public dialogue. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also one big party.

I spoke with Amy Smith Garofano about the competition which takes place this week:

Artist Amy Smith Garofano

H.A.C.K. As an artist—vs. a designer or architect, how do you see your role in this project?

Amy Smith Garofano: As an artist, I’m a little bit naive about the history of urban intervention.  I’m hoping that this might be an asset to the team in some way. Being free from that history, I may have something fresh to offer.  My strengths lie in my way of working with materials manipulating the way light interacts with surfaces.

H.A.C.K. How has cultivating a studio practice near Detroit influenced your approach to urban design problems? 

A.S.G.  Going to school at Cranbrook means that if your work deals with “urbanism” or “the city” in any way, you have to be accountable to Detroit politics. It’s a good testing ground and pushes you as an artist to really define yourself and not get too romantic about urbanism. There’s always the complicated reality of real-everyday-life-Detroit. We’re all hopeful that art and design can make a difference in an urban environment based on what we have seen happening in Detroit.

H.A.C.K. Do you foresee your response being site-specific? Or do you envision applying current aesthetic or ways of working to the site?

A.S.G. It will definitely be specific to the site and deal with the particular issues we encounter there.  But we’re also bring certain priorities and ideas, which will make what we’re doing a kind of statement that could be shifted and translated to other sites.

H.A.C.K. Tell us a bit about what defines your artistic practice.

installation shot of Garofano’s work

A.S.G. I consider my individual practice to be a way of thinking.  I don’t confine myself to categories or ways of working like painting or sculpture or installation.  I resist a way of working that is defined by a visual aesthetic.   A few keywords that get me excited are authorship, originality, systems, logic, rules, cultural constructs, and perception as it relates to subjectivity.  I’m mostly a strategist because I use the studio to set up situations where I can learn more about these things.

H.A.C.K. Tell us about your team. RSTYWTR?

A.S.G. Yep, our team is “rusty water.” It’s kind of a powerhouse!  Farid Rakun is a really smart architect from Jarkata who is also my good friend and collaborator.  He told me about the competition, and together we got group of people who we thought would be into it… Doug and Heidi are a husband and wife team of architects based in Portland, OR. Doug teaches at Lawrence Tech and Heidi at UofM. Kristin is also my good friend and we were in the painting department [at Cranbrook] together.  She works with construction materials and thinks about urban spaces all the time.  Ross is her boyfriend.  He graduated from the Cranbrook 3D Design department last year.  He is a designer and landscape architect. His work is probably the best suited to the aims of this competition.  He created an awesome pop-up park for his Cranbrook thesis and is obsessed with things like bus stop shelters.  The 6 of us are being grouped together with 6 internationals.  We only know their names and have seen their portfolios. Let’s see.. three people from Israel, two from Poland, and one woman from Berlin. The collaborative aspect of all of this is going to be intense.

H.A.C.K. Who’s your competition?

A.S.G. There are 9 other teams of people from all over the world.  I expect that competition will be friendly and fierce!

H.A.C.K. What’s next after the competition?

A.S.G. The jurors will work with locals to pick a few designs that will remain permanently on-site in Stuttgart.  The 72HUA people promise “Fun, Fame and Fortune”.   It’s tongue in cheek, but the competition is attracting a lot of press and already has imitation competitions popping up in other places.

H.A.C.K. Where would you like to see this model of design-based, public problem-solving applied in Michigan, in the U.S.?

A.S.G. I really want to see the 72HUA competition take on Detroit! But outside of this kind of competition model, I think it would be great if artists felt more free to work in and interact with the spaces around us.  Not necessarily as a philanthropic gesture, but as a way to use the spaces around us and not be limited to our studios. Making work that your neighbor sees is a bold move.

H.A.C.K. How can people contribute to your efforts?

A.S.G. We need about $4,000 more just to cover our flights. If anyone feels any connection to this project, they can donate online at http://www.gofundme.com/RSTYWTR

Stay tuned for a follow-up report from Amy on the 72HUA. And tell us what you think, where would you like to see this kind of urban action problem-solving take place?

by Tori Pelz
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