Nari Ward is no stranger to the city of Detroit. In 2006, he participated in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit’s, (MoCAD) first exhibition, Meditations in Emergency. For the exhibition, Ward contributed two site-specific works with materials sourced from the city itself. The works were “Airplane Tears,” which included dozens of old television sets with tissues stuffed into their backs (a commentary on the consumption of media in America) and “White Flight Tea Bar,” inspired by the modern presenting sculpture made by John “Jack” Ward (no relation), commemorating the 1967 rebellion, which is located in Detroit’s Gordon Park. It was during this time that he met Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, a young artist couple in Detroit, and founders of Powerhouse Productions.
Powerhouse is a mini campus comprised of several houses and lots in Detroit, near a city within a city — Hamtramck. The organization serves as a community hub for the area that is largely populated by Middle Eastern immigrants. The presence of Powerhouse in close proximity to Hamtramck is quite dazzling, offering a series of sites for local and international artists to come and activate the area in a range of different ways. There is a stark contrast between the consistent activation of the quirky Powerhouse site and the culturally rich Yemeni, Bangladeshi, and other South Asian communities that populate most of the two square mile city. Reichert and Cope have made a micro-institution in Powerhouse, resulting in an offering to the landscape in which in occupies. Powerhouse is an embraced disruption and cohesive addition to the already vibrant transnational community of families.
For the past several years, in addition to offering up space for emerging artists, Cope and Reichert have been collecting and organizing a warehouse full of quotidian objects left behind by former neighbors and their predecessors. Given that Ward’s multi-decade practice is subsumed by the desire to retool and reuse readymade objects in his work, he became fast friends with the husband and wife art duo, by bonding over their interests in mundane objecthood. More recently, their friendship has resulted in the form of a community centered public art project on Detroit’s Eastside. The several years in the making “Ride it Sculpture Park,” located along the eastbound ending of the Davidson expressway near Powerhouse features a skatepark, greenspace elements and a forthcoming public art installation by Ward. He has created a site-specific installation featuring an unassuming animal, the goat, to transform the skatepark into an anchor and inviting entrypoint into the PowerHouse campus and the Banglatown community.
On a cold wintery afternoon, while Ward, Cope, and Reichert oversaw preinstallation work for the project, ARTS.BLACK interrupted their standing lunch of smoothies and chicken shawarmas to inquire about the skatepark, their friendship, and the unassuming iconography of goats.
ARTS.BLACK: Let’s begin by having a you talk about how you met Mitch and Gina. When was the first encounter?
Nari Ward: It goes back a ways. Mitch was actually the go-to guy for Klaus Kertess, curator from New York who was doing a show [Meditations in Emergency] that was at MoCAD, I think it was [MoCAD’s] first show they ever did. Mitch was instrumental in helping me develop a work, specifically for that space. Actually I did two pieces— I did a new work and I also presented an older body of work. I think it was this piece called— the back of these TV sets.
AB: with the tissues?
NW: Right! But it changed later to handkerchiefs. It was kind of a dialogue about an epic presentation I wanted to make in large scale to talk about the power of the media. For me, it was a really interesting, very relevant time to talk about that because we were also going from one kind of media to another; one kind of viewing apparatus—this was the era where we were just getting rid of box TV’s and the flat screen TV was making its debut. A lot of TV backs were being discarded for no good reason [laughs] other than people wanted another cool new thing. So, there was a proliferation in my neighborhood of these television sets being discarded. I wanted to do something with them and the idea of taking on the subject of media’s influence was really important.
AB: And the second work was “The White Flight Tea Bar,” right?
NARI WARD: Right, right. It was a newer work that I did there that specifically dealt with the riot that happened back in the 60s. I actually chose as the centerpiece to that, a modernist sculpture that is in the [Thomas Gordon] park that commemorates the start of the riots. When everything was burned, they rebuilt and made this park, and then they commissioned this artist who happened to be named [John] ‘Jack’ Ward just by chance, to do this piece. I was really intrigued with all these strange overlays, but also the work he did was a very modernist piece with modernist language. I wanted to think about how I could take this form and in some ways further humanize it, further have a conversation with it. It became the centerpiece for this tea bar. It was also a nudge at talking about the social climate of Detroit and then tying it back to a historical moment which was that statue and that memorialized the start of the riots.The whole premise was to have conversation. The use of the acoustical ceiling tiles was talking about this idea of sound but also it was meant to be this kind of bland non-historic material. I’m always interested in materials that can gather history through its experience of the viewer. Foam is one material that is even more ahistorical that I’ve used in the past.
AB:Can you talk about the participatory component of the work?
NW: The idea was to create the space for people to commune, to spend time and talk, and I used very bland material— roofing tiles— to construct it. It was really this exploding center piece. Then there were all these seats, several seats, and seating area around it for people that had tea. So there was this kind of service for the gallery for the museum folks to set up tea pitchers and cups. You were invited to take the cups that you had and add it to the centerpiece.
AB: One of the things that is very prevalent in your practice and also the practice of Mitch and Gina from Powerhouse is that you all are both sourcing used materials, readymade objects that are relatively accessible. Could talk about your first experience with the archive that Mitch and Gina have been organizing for the past several years?
NARI WARD: It was very well organized, almost forensically so and for me it was exciting! It was exciting because there was this this idea of finding objects that took you on a story. I saw that they collected many of the same things. They had like several different types of margarine butter containers and they would save them
There was a real sense of abundance with discards that I am attracted to as well. If you get somebody to see it once, its acknowledged in its presence, but if you get them to see it a multitude of times then they have to deal with it—almost Warholian—repeated over and over and over and it starts to seep into other kinds of spaces and expectations. Mitch and Gina’s archive’s were really intriguing to me. Then of course, they always had this story of this particular individual family that saved [the objects] then let them fall into disuse. There is something very much about these things being essential and marginal that was very much specific to how I work. I did find their archive inspiring in a lot of ways.
AB: It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to have several points of entry into the city over several years. And you’ve had a relationship with the city specifically as Detroit has been going through massive changes. Considering that you are interested in engaging nontraditional museum audiences with your work, have you had a particular type of methodology for how you approached and engaged with the Detroit and Hamtramck community in preparation for this project?
NW: I never really work in a community if I don’t have somebody who’s on the ground because I realized that the trust element is really necessary. It’s hard to build that if you’re just coming in for a project as a opposed to a long term commitment so it was great that Mitch and Gina have this long term real sense of place. They’re very much a part of the fabric of that neighborhood.
The skatepark became, for me, a really interesting test. It wasn’t necessarily a conventional art expectation but it was actually this periphery community engagement site that these skaters, the skateheads, were participating in. It is an interesting young, dynamic audience, and I could challenge myself to have a conversation with them. And so that’s why it really came down to me thinking about that community and what would just be a common thread. The entire park revolves around stasis and flux; its all about movement and stillness.
AB: In an essay by Naomi Beckwith about your work in the Sun Splash catalog, she describes your practice as, not strictly an artistic practice, but one of “site responsiveness.” The people of metro-Detroit are specifically looking for visitors to respond authentically and affirmatively to this place. Because it’s so diverse and layered, many people who are not from here have a difficult time grasping its essence. But you’ve managed to do so in an unassuming way. By incorporating the iconography of the goat — an animal highly prevalent on the lawns of the Bangladesh community in Hamtramck for reasons both spiritual and agricultural — you have identified this hyperlocal asset and paired it in duality with the GOAT, which has ultimately immortalized the livestock animal in the context of Banglatown. Can you talk more about the different iconographic narratives that you are pulling from to make this installation? And your desire to connect Detroit and Hamtramck, Michigan with the twenty year old Socrates Sculpture Park in New York ?
NW: The translation to Socrates was totally different, but it was necessary on a lot of different levels. It was necessary because the goat became an art historical metaphor. It became a baccus. Overconsumption; goats will eat until their stomachs burst if you give them too much food. But they’re also seen as being somewhat mischievous and very efficient in excelling , they’re climbers. And there’s this part of the sacrifice, this sacrificial animal. I really got intrigued with, even the vernacular, there is the “Greatest of All Time” phrase, but even the [phrase] ‘somebody’s gonna get my goat’ which means that someone has messed with you or got you upset, right? So all of these layers work from the state of mind that I was in complicating a political climate that were dealing with at the time.
The goat became a surrogate for those anxieties, from the male hubris to sacrificial entity. I feel like there is a nice broad range in the in-between for somebody to find space to find their own experience with it. And the other part was [Socrates] is 5 acres, right? [laughs]. I thought what better way to have a random discourse in a landscape that doesn’t have animals occupy it. They create their own rhythm. It also fits to that paradigm; figuring out the expectation of navigating a landscape. There’s no questioning why they are there, they’re just there because that’s what goats do. I like that it gave license for us to populate the park in a way that a lot of other pieces wouldn’t have been able to if it was a traditional sculpture. Even with a modernist piece you have to kind of figure out why it’s there. I didn’t have to do that in this case. We can put them on top of things, existing things and create other things for them to be on top of. And that was important part of the piece at Socrates; that they actually, I think eighty percent of the goats, we tried to have them raised to be on top of something random.The political climate really made the goat project evolve, specifically for Socrates where it was really best at being a conversation piece with the neighborhood in Detroit.
AB: In Detroit, they will exist similarly on totems?
NARI WARD: Yes, in Detroit, they will be really high. Two of them are on a tower and one is on a smaller form. It was really setting up this thing inside the bin. The car bins are an important part of that too. Because it is Detroit, I wanted to have kind of a wink and a nod to its history but I didn’t really want it to be about that car industry. If you look at those bins, they are embellished with a decorative motif and it was a way of bringing them back into industry and a home or a naturalistic space.
AB: You’re hinting at a specific type of labor with them it seems, but not in the way that’s always implied when we think of Detroit, in terms of labor, industry and manufacturing innovations. You’re going back further in history and thinking about labor in terms of agriculture.
NW: I didn’t want the bin presence to overwhelm by being about the car industry. It was really up to me to figure out what was going to go inside of them that could contradict that or contrast that and where else could it take it. Again, it came back to this idea of placement and stasis.
AB: So movement and stasis are themes that you are wanting your audience to take away from these works?
NW: It’s also about time and resilience and a strange moment of complacency. It’s almost like what I do: taking two things to make them one, with that happening kind of naturally. I’m also trying to talk about time in a way that is much more mysterious than our normal way of thinking of it as a sequential beginning middle and end.