Saturday, March 28, 2009

SPE Presentation: Jeff Brouws – “It Don’t Exist” (Liveblog)

“It Don’t Exist: The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City Americans.” by Jeff Brouws. Jeff is a self taught photographer (now represented by five galleries and author of four books) and this lecture includes a fair amount of his work. His work is in many important collections, but I’m not familiar with it, so I’m excited to see this.

After Jeff is introduced by an SPE board member, and got to his podium in front of the PowerPoint screen, he starts talking about his photographic experience – shooting the cultural landscape for the last 20 years. His goal is to bring his work to us under the theme of this talk – even though many divergent themes exist within them.

He says that many minority populations are so below our collective radar that they feel like they don’t exist.

His goal is to look at the urban core instead of the periphery (new topographics and much other work) and see how it is affected by the same cultural movement.

His talk has ranged from the history of freeways and how they affected suburban development (1956 was the start of a national freeway system). I didn’t realize that this was so recent. Apparently one of the major goals was to enable the quick exit of cities under the risk of an impending nuclear attack. But they also pushed important goods farther out from city centers, eventually devastating the urban core. It was “cleaner” because the factories moved out, but unless it was also a cultural center (NYC) they have a tendency to become almost deserted (Dallas).

I want to note here that Jeff is a good speaker, quick and sharp – hard to keep up with typing, but enjoyable to listen to.

He asked now whether our passion for moving on highways really makes us “Free” or if we are trapped within another system. Eventually railroads suffered from build-out as well (everyone has seen many deserted freight yards). Jeff’s description of the long freight process really emphasizes how freight totally avoids city centers now.

He’s talking now about Urban Morphology, how the architecture changed as the build-out occurred. (“fancy term for talking about the spacial relationships in a city”)

In most cities, each part of industry was confined to a different part of the city (warehouse district, office district) – but the warehouse district used to be joined by rivers and trainyards. After the interstate freight shift, these entire districts became unused since the major distribution points were now far away from population centers.

Likewise similar infrastructure suffered – meat packing districts, graineries located near cities, animal feed industries, etc. Smaller mills were constructed within trucking distance instead – resulting in more job loss in places like buffalo that used to rely on a single major industry. Now there are about 7000 homes awaiting demolition in Buffalo alone, since the workers no longer live there. Likewise, Detroit has lost 1/3 of its population.

It used to be 33 percent of Americans involved in manufacturing – now it is 12% and most of those workers from before are now employed in service jobs in the suburbs (at big box stores, chains, etc.)

In fact, many of the industrial complexes that have been rebuilt are now malls, targets, wallmarts, etc – because suburban land has become too expensive, and because the ground is often formally toxic in the industrial areas (which the government doesn’t do much more besides make sure it is covered with a layer of asphalt) often available for very cheap.

These regions also often had a more compliant labor force hostile to unionizing – something that stores like Walmart enjoy.

Jeff shifts now to a bit about commercial districts – now he says as someone who is 54 he can still remember when shops served a utilitarian function along with a social dynamic very different from current chains. Also, money from these business went to local taxes, money stayed in town. Now, your local Walmart has its corporate center somewhere that doesn’t charge it taxes on out of state sales in the same way – the entire business puts money out of the community.

Every day in America 5000 acres of ex-farmland or wilderness gets converted to concrete covered sprawl.

As a side note, Jeff puts in some images of abandoned drive-in theatres that he’s collected over the years – and notes that many of them are now covered with a k-mart or something similar.

I want to talk abit about Jeff’s work here. It’s fairly straightforward and unironic, but some of the images are quite beautiful or downright depressing. He seems to be a photographer that is very concerned with his subject and bringing it together to show people what we’ve done. I actually have seen some of his images (such as on SPE promo materials) and I think they’re perfect at explaining this idea of Sprawl while seeming effortless. Very clean, crisp work.

Much of it is presented in grid form and these typologies could easily be from any area of America. They aren’t labeled on the slides, but he does talk about where they are from.

His last section before his conclusion is on graffiti and urban art and he seems more interested in who did them and how “often inner city environments are the only place you see public political messagery” – His goals are not to be “making art” out of these images, but to be sharing it. (I hate when intro photo students take a bunch of pictures of graffiti that are basically copy work. It can be used interestingly, but so often is not.)

His hope is that there could be a renewed interest in union and social groups to combat alienation, along with urban renewal programs that focus on making sure minorities are not ignored.

He’s mentioned many interesting things – talking about Bush’s Leave No Child Behind program (“policy reduced to a slogan”) or the difference in deficits between white and mostly minority communities, Fordism, integrated garages that discouraged pedestrian activity, population densities. There’s no way I could do it all justice here, federal housing policy favoring whites during periods in our history.

There were some really good questions after the speach, but I unfortunately couldn’t stay for his responses since I need to run to the next lecture.

I highly recommend seeing a lecture by Jeff Brouws if you can – or at least picking up one of his books. His grasp of facts and understanding of history really compliments his imagery and helps bring context to several bodies of work.

His discussion is of the impact of policies, of the things he is concerned with – instead of trying to push the impact of his pictures – He doesn’t wax too poetic on photographic theory, or what the images “mean,” instead he tells you what they are and lets you come to your own conclusions.

This may not be on forfront of the avant garde right now, but I think it’s rather refreshing.

[This post to be updated with links, proper spellings, and images!]

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 1:44 pm  

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