In 2000, together with Ingo Vetter, I travelled to Detroit for the first time. Commissioned by the Werleitz-Biennale "Real Work" (curator: Christiane Mennicke / Corinna Koch) we set out to document the ruins of industrialization. They were there, for sure, but what we didn't expect to find was a vibrant and diverse urban agriculture community. In the following years, we made numerous trips to Detroit, met artists and farmers and artist farmers, community organizers and dedicated high school teachers. We documented their activities, conducted many interviews, we listened and learned.
I am Farming Humanity
Video, 16:40 Min., Color
English with German/French/Swedish subtitles
Interview with Lee Burns, urban farmer and co-founder of the "Detroit Agriculture Network."
In 2005 we founded, together with artist Mitchell Cope, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop. The tree of heaven (lat. ailanthus) aka "ghetto palm" is ubiquitous all over the abandoned lots and dilapidated factory sites. The tree originates from China and came with waves of Chinese migrant workers because of its use in Chinese traditional medicine. Other specimen were imported to the USA by botanists for parks and private gardens. As a typical neophyte, the tree of heaven soon left its confinements and rapidly spread all over the USA. The tree is highly resilient to unfavorable conditions, it tolerates contaminated soil and drought, and it spreads through seeds as well as off-shots. Once it has taken roots, it's almost impossible to get rid of. For all these qualities, we chose the tree of heaven as an icon for the resilience and the staying power of the people of Detroit. By trial and error, we learned how to cure the wood and to work with it. We collaborated with local experts—artists, sociologists, a bicycle-powered tree grooming business, a mobile sawmill, a small carpentry business —and harvested trees from abandoned sites or from people's front gardens.
We made museum benches, tables, vessels, picture frames, ladders. The SMART Museum, Chicago, commissioned a work and as a logical next step, and because we liked the absurdity of it, we purchased a lot and planted a tree farm. In recent years, the activities of the woodshop have slightly moved away from Detroit. In 2016 we harvested trees in Berlin and by now, the timber should be good to go.
Let's see what our next project will be!
Shrinking Cities—Schrumpfende Städte
Multi-part exhibition project (curator: Philip Oswalt)
These installation shots were taken at the opening at MOCAD Detroit, 2007
The Museum Arbeitswelt (Museum of Labor) in Steyr, Austria, commissioned a city portrait of Detroit for its reopening in 2006. The permanent exhibition working-world.net is dedicated to the fundamental changes in working environments in a globalized economy.
The portrait consists of ten vessel sculptures lathe-turned from laminated blocks of Tree of Heaven wood. The outlines are based on various statistics relevant to Detroit. The time frame is 1985 (base) to 2005 (top). The data has been provided by Jason Booza, Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University.