Wednesday, April 6, 2011

018: The RoboCop Debate

One tweeter posts a random challenge to Mayor Bing, and it sets off one of the most engaged, vibrant, and often heated discussions about public art the city has ever held.

I have tried to outline the discussion for you below so that you can form your own opinions about the piece. I think my view is clear about this type of work which neither proposes a solution nor forces us to question our perception of or role in the greater community and how those perceptions and actions are affecting the space in which we live.

Discussing A RoboCop Statue On WDET's Craig Fahle Show from Jerry Paffendorf on Vimeo.

The project's website with link to its kickstarter page: Detroit Needs RoboCop

1. It is insulting to Detroit and to Detroiters who have lived here through the worst. The reason Detroit is the setting for Robocop is because the city is considered a hellhole. Robocop may be a man/machine who overcomes injustice, but the Detroit in that movie is no compliment. The statue would serve as a perpetual reminder that Detroit holds the distinction of being the most believable dystopia in America.

2. It's disrespectful to the police. As if there is any better symbol of a dysfunctional police force than Robocop. Good luck with your 911 response times with that statue in your front yard.

3. It's hypocritical. A major plot point in the movie is that the new “Delta City” would be built over the crime-ridden “Old Detroit.” The movie's plot does pivot on the actions of corrupt corporate overlords, but Robocop remains a tool of the corporate powers at the end. The need for a new Delta City is never in doubt.

The fact that the Imagination Station is involved is of particular interest, since co-founder and president Jeff DeBruyn has been so very vocal in the recent gentrification fear-mongering in the Corktown area (a notion that was nicely debunked by the Free Press editorial page and's Jeff Wattrick last month). Apparently it's ok to celebrate a movie that takes for granted the need for a most severe kind of gentrification in Detroit, but it's problematic when middle-class people move into a middle-class neighborhood.

Incidentally, the Detroit Works project posted “Love that Robocop trended out yesterday” on their Facebook fan page. They need to think really hard about the decision to enter into this discussion, since they are teetering on the perception of being Omni Consumer Products, the corporation responsible for making the New Detroit in the movie, themselves.

4. It proves Martha Reeves was right. When she was elected to office a major part of her agenda was to have statues of Motown stars placed around town. She said it would make people feel good. She was rightly ridiculed for this, because what Detroit needs is substantive change, not feel-good gestures, even if it is statues of actual Detroiters who made significant cultural contributions.

Of course a statue of a fictional character, conceived and created 2000 miles away from Detroit, is a great idea and if you don't like it then you should prepare yourself to be labeled a buzzkill.

5. It's the outsider's answer to the Joe Louis fist. There is a vocal group of people who can never move past the notion that the Joe Louis fist statue is a defiant gesture aimed at the suburbs, a constant reminder in the heart of downtown that they think they were told to “hit 8 Mile Road” by a Detroit mayor.

A Robocop statue, with money that will no doubt be raised primarily from outside the city limits, can be seen as the constant reminder (potentially right in the middle of one of our more vibrant neighborhoods) that Detroit will never move past its reputation as hopelessly corrupt and crime-ridden. And will be celebrated by many more non-residents than residents, for sure. Way to put a city in its place.

6. It's derivative. Public art can be hit or miss, but even when it doesn't quite work it demonstrates the creativity of a community and the openness of a population to those creative endeavors.

Placing a statue of a movie character shows little creativity, and it actually flagrantly uses somebody else's intellectual property, whether or not this particular use is legally copyrighted. It may be clever, or even ironic, in its placement, but at the end of the day it's not art.

7. It's a waste of money and manpower. The Kickstarter project seeks to raise $50,000 to make this statue. I don't doubt that is a reasonable estimate of costs for materials and manpower, and possibly administrative costs. But in a city like Detroit where $50k can make such a difference, is this really the best way to use that kind of cash? And doesn't it really squander the talents of people who could be involved in better, more creative pursuits?

Or what about projects to help the destitute in Corktown so they can get real help instead of feeling displaced from a public park?

8. It's low culture. Sure, Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky, and Milwaukee has the Bronze Fonz. But honestly, is that what we are going for? Stupid tourist attractions that appeal to connoisseurs of lowest culture? I'd argue that this is one “us too!” moment we can live without.

9. It's opportunist. The initial Tweet to the Mayor's office was a joke, and possibly the biggest error in this whole thing was the fact that someone in the Mayor's office actually deigned to reply to it (props again to Jeff Wattrick for that observation). But now it's become the movement of the moment, and it just seems a bit opportunist to take ownership of the idea.

It certainly will be plenty of publicity for the Imagination Station whether this gets funded or not – heck, they're already on Detroit Public Radio today to talk about it. Then again, maybe that's the idea? In which case Jerry Paffendorf (whom I like very much personally, by the way) continues to prove himself one of the savviest marketers in the Detroit area.

10. It will add an entirely new dimension to train station ruin porn. Tired of pictures of the Michigan Central Station? If this goes up in front of the Imagination Station, located across the street from the train station, you can expect to be seeing a lot more MCS ruin porn in the years to come.
One undeniably good thing that has come from the debate:

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