Urban Gothic: Stan Douglas (2000)

“Urban Gothic: Stan Douglas’s Le Détroit,” C Magazine, no. 65 (Spring 2000), pp. 35-38.

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Urban Gothic: Stan Douglas's Le Détroit

In the heart of America, in the midst of its industrial core, a rot festers, a malignant reminder of some past crime of dispossession. Detroit, Motor City—its name is emblematic of the spark of industrial and popular culture. Yet its city centre is a ruin, haunted by white flight, a result of the race riots of 1967. Here is an urban myth of epic scale—the destruction of America's fourth largest city. But Detroit exists in our imagination as an absence, unexamined in art, except in the macabre law-and-order Frankensteinism of the movie Robocop. Until now.
    Abject present day Detroit is the subject of Stan Douglas's most recent project, typically researched in a series of large-scale colour photographs. Like his immediately preceding work Win, Place or Show, with its subject of urban renewal, Le Détroit takes on the failed utopias of modernism, now as a disaster zone. But in Douglas's photographs here, utopia is in reverse. His photographs reveal a return to a pastoral past, a return yet haunted by knowledge of epic ruin. Le Détroit thus synthesizes the modernist urban schemes of Douglas's Win, Place or Show (1998) and the Gothic underpinnings of his Nu•tka• (1996). The Gothic is familiar territory for Douglas. He has written of Nu•tka• that "the Gothic romance was typically characterized by a return of the repressed: some past transgression haunts, then destroys, the culpable person, family or social order."
    Like Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables, built on the ground of some grievous wrong, Detroit—the city of Marie Hamlin's 1883 chronicle Legends of Le Détroit—pays for the crimes of its founding. What can explain this strange abandonment, or expulsion as if from a haunted site, making Detroit a city of haunted houses? (The evacuation was as well a result of the erosion of the city's tax base by industry moving to the suburbs in advance of the white flight consequent to Detroit's ruinous "black day in July.") So, in a stunning series of photographic images (mainly 1997-98), we witness the effect of the haunting's expulsion.
    Some of these photographs are surreal, such as Michigan Theatre with the canopied vault of its opulent movie theatre hanging, like the Roman ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, over a retrofitted parking lot. Many of their images are uncanny, particularly those that combine signs of regression with the archaic appeal of past aesthetics, as in the pastoral images of Victorian houses occupying sparse village grounds that were once jostling urban grids (Home Beside Jefferson Junior High). Some photographs document failures of the automotive titans of the past (Packard Plant and Trinity Cemetery); however, there is no evidence of the big three manufacturers—GM, Ford, or Chrysler—in any of Douglas's images.
    Civic efforts at urban redevelopment are revealed to be further violence to the city's past, such as in those photographs that disclose the forced creation of an entertainment district. For instance, Gem Theatre depicts this historic building being wheeled to a new site. Other images show the encroachment of new residential development on the edge of dangerous and decrepit neighbourhoods. The title of one of these, Eastern Border of Indian Village, suggests that the present repeats the past; that the ground is a palimpsest of a site's unspoken history of expulsion (natives in the past, the poor in the present); and that the borders between contiguous sites or the past and present are liminal zones fraught with overt or covert conflict. Still other photographs show monuments to civic endeavor (Michigan Central Station) or attempts at enlightened public housing—or class and race segregation (Row Houses at Herman Gardens)—abandoned to ruin and depredation.
    The housing project Herman Gardens is the setting for Douglas's double film projection Le Détroit (1999). Worker's terrace housing in garden tracts is a legacy of the utopian socialism of the nineteenth century and the social engineering of the twentieth. To set a horror story in its ruins is natural—after all, the picturesque and the horrific commingle in the cultural imagination: Horace Walpole's elysian Strawberry Fields could elicit a Castle of Otranto.
    If Marie Hamlin's Legends of Le Détroit offers an explanation for the perpetuated guilt punished in the ruins of the present day Detroit of Douglas's photographs, Shirley Jackson's famous 1959 horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, provides the theme for Douglas's film projection. Le Détroit is only the last in a long line of movies of haunted houses and poltergeists engendered by Hamlin's novel. In it, Douglas's protagonist, a young black woman, visits the precipitously abandoned, yet still furnished, Herman Gardens at night. Passing through rooms that seem to have a spirit of their own—closet doors open and close, etc.—she searches between the walls of an upstairs bedroom for some hidden object. Startled, she abandons her search to return to her car only, through an edit in the film, to begin her path again to the house. In our second viewing, the footprint that greeted her at her entry is now likely her own.
     Douglas's narrative is inconclusive mainly because the horror trap his protagonist inhabits is the film loop, not anything that the storyline leads to. Formal effects externalize the haunting in this short sequence. These special effects are produced through projecting, on the reverse sides of a free-standing translucent screen, negative and positive versions of the film, slightly out of sync by a couple of frames. Quasi-solarized ghostings result that shadow the action.
    The screen between these images, where one projection shines through and possesses the other, is, thus, one more of the liminal zones Douglas suggests in his title (d'étroit is a strait between two bodies of water). Memory is recuperated, or at least repression lifted, in these zones. In his film projection, Douglas makes palpable what he could only point to in his photographs—the distressed possession of the present by the past.