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Detroit: Imagine No Robocop

by Gregg Newsom, Detroit Evolution

Many across Detroit and the world have tuned into the latest Detroit Kickstarter kitsch, a proposed Robocop Statue across from the famous Michigan Central Station. You can learn more about it and take in some of the feedback the project is getting from Detroiters at the Imagination Station’s Facebook page. The statue has been written about extensively, but I’d like to shift the focus from Robocop to some blind spots that many white artist/entrepreneurs often succumb to while striving to engage Detroit’s diverse communities and respect its rich history.

First, I’m not a fan. Just to get it off my chest, I’ll share that, if this statue gets built, I’m really not looking forward to going to the park, which is right across the expressway from our home, and explaining to my son the who and why of Robocop. I’ll make something up so I don’t have to share the dystopian and dysfunctional narrative and I’m cool with that because I consider mediating culture to be part of my role as a parent. Though this isn’t my main thrust, I share it in the hope it may reframe the statue for some from the eyes of our city’s youth.

And really, that just leads up to some big questions for me, and they are part of a greater issue that I’ve spent the past five years trying to mindfully navigate, yet still barely grasp. What we’ve been striving towards is the ability to see the work Angela and I share from different perspectives. We do this because Angela and I value perspectives outside of the highly influential circles of predominantly white artist/entrepreneurs that gather and organize Detroit’s return to what we consider to be a rather sterile version of a “world class” city.

We seek these perspectives because we believe that racial disparity is the greatest threat to successfully co-creating sustainable communities in Detroit. So, how can we, as white artist/entrepreneurs, truly engage? How do we not only share with, but also learn from the communities around us? Is it possible to even take the lead from the communities that we profess to be in tune with?

And most importantly to the here and now, for Robocop and the folks at Imagination Station is, how do we navigate community dissent? Due to the defensive nature of some of the facebook posts I’ve read, I’ve gathered that, with Robocop, the organizers at the Imagination Station have received their first opportunity to hold themselves accountable to community members who have expressed dissent to a project. That’s a tough one. It’s the point where your community engagement policies and procedures are put to the test, or it’s the point where you discover they were there simply as a symbolic green light and good PR.

It’s really a pickle that Angela and I have been in for the past few years. We’ve made mistakes that we are still striving to amend. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it takes a great deal more time to engage at the level I feel is requisite to build something that is not only meaningful, but sustainable. Taking time really isn’t celebrated in crowd-based funding circles. And really, it’s the last thing that anyone attempting to get a project off the ground wants to hear, especially white artist/entrepreneurs, who are used to being able to do what they please without being held accountable to anyone.

Here’s an approach: the physical infrastructure in Detroit is broken, which many outsiders consider to be a green light. Projects are planned, funded and executed under the assumption that the community infrastructure is broken as well. If people tried to do half the things that have been done in Detroit in a place with a recognizable community infrastructure, they would be blocked. The issue here is that Detroit’s community infrastructure is not broken, it has simply taken on forms that many don’t see.

This isn’t a radical idea; if the community center is blown out, it doesn’t mean that the community doesn’t gather, they just gather in places that many wouldn’t consider valid spaces. After that it comes down to the fact that many don’t want to see or hear from the community, because it means they need to slow down and not only listen, but possibly stop or shift their project or idea.

Co-creating within a community can be hard on your ego and even harder on your art project. I know, I’m recovering from a poorly organized Kickstarter project that brought our values about community engagement into question as a half-finished Dome. Heck, I’m the white guy who opened up a “Laboratory” in a predominantly African-American city! I’m learning, or unlearning as I’ve come to frame it.

We all have a great deal of work ahead of us if we are going to step into the future in a meaningful, mindful and equitable manner. I think that it can be done and believe that, if we are able to pull it off, it will not look like anything we have seen before. It will take Real PR, real public relations, not marketing or pushing flavor of the week memes.

I encourage the organizers of this project and The Imagination Station to stand strong on their touted commitment to the community. I highly recommend trying to listen to the voices that can’t yet be heard, the ones that you don’t want to hear and, even if it means stepping down or shifting gears, following the community’s lead. I think a great deal of relationship building could be facilitated by mindfully stepping down from this precipice. I wish the organizers all the best in mediating this challenge.

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1 Tweets that mention Detroit: Imagine No Robocop — Detroit Evolution -- Topsy.com { 02.17.11 at 10:58 pm }

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by C and Detroit Evolution, Detroit Evolution. Detroit Evolution said: People say no to #Detroit #Robocop http://detroitevolution.com/2011/02/detroit-imagine-no-robocop/ [...]

2 nah { 02.17.11 at 11:35 pm }

So the argument of this essay is: “I’m not a Robocop fan and I don’t look forward to explaining Robocop to my children. Other people obviously are opposed to a statue too. Maybe the project supporters should listen to those dissenting voices. Somehow this is related to race, but I shall not explain myself clearly here.” Hmm. This argument does not make me feel bad about having pledged to support the Robocop statue.

3 Frank Lloyd { 02.18.11 at 1:21 am }

Well, 2027 people seem to want it as of 2/17/2011, how about you just let something happen that the majority of the people want. Quit being such a hippie, you are a real downer. Ok so your little project didn’t work, sorry, don’t dump on these guys because you failed.

4 Gregg Newsom { 02.18.11 at 2:19 am }

Since when did 2027 people become a majority?

5 Gregg Newsom { 02.18.11 at 2:26 am }

Agreed that this could be more clearly outlined as I’m trying to share some thoughts that I struggle with myself. Certainly glad I didn’t make you feel bad, that wasn’t the point at all.

6 Amy Senese { 02.18.11 at 2:49 am }

Beautiful post Gregg. 2027 people is certainly NOT a majority when you consider a great majority of the donors don’t live in Detroit or care about the local community.

7 John { 02.18.11 at 2:59 am }

Frank, Gregg is anything but a downer. He’s inspiring, thoughtful and one of the most positive people I’ve met in Detroit. I don’t really see how this article could have opened up any place for negativity- I suggest you read the article a couple more times and meditate on what he is actually saying. Don’t take advantage of other people’s humility.

8 nah { 02.18.11 at 3:20 am }

Re: 5: Well and graciously put. I can understand not liking the idea of a Robocop statue. It’s not everyone’s thing, people have different tastes, that’s cool. I don’t understand why that means that the statue shouldn’t be built, if it’s not coming from taxpayer money. And it’s just a statue — you won’t have to look at it wherever you go in the city, it will be on its one piece of land. The other thing I don’t get that I’m honestly curious about is why the statue’s supposed to be bad for race relations. I’ve seen the movie and I really don’t get it. (Full disclosure, Mexican-American on my dad’s side [not that that makes a difference except that I can't say "I'm white and I think..." or "I'm black and I think..."].)

9 Anna Springer { 02.18.11 at 5:15 am }

I would wonder how many of those 2027 actually live in Corktown, or even Detroit proper for that matter….

10 bonesy { 02.18.11 at 8:38 am }

dude you cant shelter your kid the rest of his life, Detroit isnt too far away from the movie anyway! All children love robocop- didnt you see the second movie? He is a symbol of heroism and justice. If you dont like the statue then find some other 7 foot tall space to occupy, you have the entire rest of the city to.

11 Gregg Newsom { 02.18.11 at 12:04 pm }

While I agree that I can’t shelter my kid for the rest of his life. I disagree with the status quo and value-debilitating notion that because I can’t I shouldn’t try. This statue, if it goes across the street from the MCS as all the PR indicates, will be in my backyard. I don’t have the “entire rest of the city” this is it.

12 LtD { 02.18.11 at 7:11 pm }

“Robocop not only dramatizes the dehumanization of untrammeled technological development, it resists the postmodern fatalism of someone like Baudrillard who concludes that the Subject has lost its battle with the Object and so should surrender and embrace “fatal strategies.” While Robocop depicts a cyberblitzed, post-catastrophic, hyperreal, technified world, it also suggests that technology cannot achieve its goal of a perfectly enclosed, self-referential entombment, that simulation strategies do not necessarily succeed, and that the human subject is not so easily erased. Robocop’s struggle to understand what has happened to him and who he is, his identification with his former human self irrevocably entrapped within a steel body, his rebellion against bureaucracy and his corporate creators, and the forging of his own will against a technological determination, constitute this film’s undeniably utopian moments. Robocop dramatizes the resilience of a subject, albeit a cyborg, amidst the most incredibly reified and subjugating conditions, and allegorizes its attempts to find meaning and value within a corrupt and decadent postmodern world.”
– Steven Best

If the above is a tl;dr, just chew on the last sentence. When you scratch below the surface I find there is much to talk about with my 7-year-old daughter at the foot of a RoboCop statue. This would include he being envisioned by Verhoven as a Christ figure. So, levitate on that for a few.

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