AN INTERVIEW WITH GINA REICHERT AND MITCH COPE
By J. Fiona Ragheb
Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope founded Design 99 in 2007, to investigate new models of contemporary art and architectural practice. Initially occupying a retail storefront space, the design studio situated itself in the public realm, offering over-the-counter design consultations and marketing $99 house call specials. Embedded in their residential corner of Detroit, Design 99 sought out opportunities to experiment with art and design within their community.
Since 2008, the team has been developing the Power House as a test site for ideas and methods, lo and hi-tech building systems, and a point of conversation for the entire neighborhood. In 2009, Reichert & Cope founded Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization focused on neighborhood stabilization through art and culture.
They have exhibited widely, including the Van Abbemuseum, the Smart Museum of Art, Kunsthalle Wien, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Reichert and Cope have lectured at the Dutch Art Institute, Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Umeå University, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and the Pulitzer Foundation. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, on CNN, and in Der Spiegel, I.D. and Dwell magazines, among others.
J. Fiona Ragheb: I’d like to start by discussing your trajectory, because it's somewhat distinctive and important to understanding your work.
Mitch Cope: I started out as a traditional trained painter, interested in landscapes and how people interact with landscapes and how people affect landscapes, specifically... Growing up in Detroit, it's pretty obvious. And then, from there, I kept painting for quite a few years until I went to grad school at Washington State University. Then I came back to Detroit and realized that it seemed strange to just be observing the landscape, as opposed to trying to be more involved in the landscape. I mean, Tyree Guyton was a big influence in that, in the early '90s, seeing that. Originally, that kind of a project and seeing how he was really becoming... making his own landscape.
JFR: So your work has always been sort of more expansive...
MC: Yeah… I think that was the beginning of kind of expanding out from just studio practice.
Gina Reichert: I went to architecture school--undergrad--in New Orleans, and then left there... I left to go to New York and work there for a few years, and then moved to Michigan to go to graduate school at Cranbrook, for architecture. I was there, but very interested in what was going on in the city, and didn't realize when I moved here how separate… I knew Cranbrook was a bubble and I knew grad school was kind of its own bubble, regardless. But, the bizarreness of the closest city with this amazing, to me, fascinating, weirdly complicated, dense history, just…
JFR: So how did the two of you actually start collaborating?
GR: After graduation I worked in an office downtown, and I did that just to get caught up on money stuff. But I hated it. I was working crazy hours and I realized, "Wow. Why am I spending all my time and energy for something I don't want to do?" And then, at some point it's like, "I feel bad about the clients I'm working for because I don't really care about their projects.” And I was very... I've always been very interested in smaller objects where you're actually kind of thinking through making, which you don't do when you work on an airport.
We got married in 2003, and bought this house in 2005 and moved into it and the neighborhood was really fascinating to me; I didn't know much about the neighborhood before we moved into it. And so, I became more and more interested in what was happening in the neighborhood, and more and more interested in figuring out how I could work for other people, rather than the clients that our office was bringing in. And you…
MC: So, I was, at the time, working at MoCAD the first year before it opened, helping set it up, and then the first two shows that they had, the Klaus Kertess show and then Shrinking Cities came to Detroit and Cranbrook. But I also hated that. The dysfunction there was enormous. So we both kind of decided, let's just quit both of those things, and we started a storefront in Hamtramck called Design 99, and that was experimenting with the sort of blend of our two fields, fine art and architecture, and in the middle was some design, either functional design or not-functional design. And so, we sold local artists and designers all kinds of weird stuff, and then we also sold services... design services, architectural or basic design services out of the store for 99 cents a minute.
GR: It was probably like a take on the dollar stores. We were in this commercial strip in Hamtramck, downtown where there were all these dollar stores, and partly... I've always really liked that essay Bryan Bell wrote about the 98% of building projects in the United States that get made without an architect and what a crazy statistic that is, and he's got this philosophy about going out and finding the clients that you'd like to work with. And so, this was our way of kind of trying to find clients and offer them a service or a rate that they could find accessible or approachable, because sometimes people look at you and you're an architect and they get this crazy look on their face.
So, it's this weird thing where I feel like I was trying to demystify the field. I don't think it's something that should be inaccessible to people. To me, that's a problem. So that's how we started with the storefront and that's how we started collaborating together. Again, we were just in this space doing the work we were doing and a team of curators walks in, from Chicago and the Netherlands, and they were like, "People told us to come talk to you about what you're doing." So, we met Charles Esche and Stephanie Smith and Kerstin Niemann, and they were working on this exhibition called Heartland that opened at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. And then, the second year was at the Smart Museum in Chicago. I think that's when we really started doing—
MC: Art projects.
GR: Gallery work together and exhibition work together.
JFR: It was interesting to hear you speak about a more expansive practice, actually engaging with the landscape in the city. I would expect that from somebody trained as an architect, but as a painter, I find it very compelling.
MC: Yeah, it's definitely not in my training, whatsoever, to do that... Seeing what was happening in Detroit at the time, because it was still the early '90s and even the early 2000s, it was still in a very steep decline. But then, the contrast, for me, was interesting: that the people are amazing, but the city's falling apart. And, it's not the narrative that you would hear everywhere else, but I always found that the stories are really fascinating and heartbreaking. The one thing I was trained about, or was taught in school, was that artists have a responsibility to their community. It was never defined, but it was sort of drilled into me from one of my teachers that artists have... they have a different vision and they see things differently, and so you have a responsibility to sort of pick up the slack or whatever that is. So, that was always the sort of leading thought that led me into moving out.
JFR: The term “practice” has gained more and more currency in regards to artists talking about their own work, but in terms of your collaboration and even your individual work it seems to have much greater resonance.
GR: Words like “practice” and “project” came naturally to me because architecture semesters or clients, that's just how people talk about things. Yeah, I think maybe it was a bigger shift for you in the art studio to think about it.
MC: Yeah. We moved to the neighborhood specifically because we found a house that I could have a studio in, because it was an old Polish deli and it had a nice sized storefront in it. But, I still never painted in the studio because just, for me too, the neighborhood was really fascinating and we held a talent show in the storefront. That was our first sort of public project and it was our way of... it was a way to draw people in and it's like a trick to get people in to kind of interact, but having a diversion. That was really successful in the sense that it definitely... The neighbors sort of—
GR: Got to know us.
MC: Got to know us and got to know us on a level immediately that we're these people who do funny, strange things. So, we got to know a really interesting cross section of the neighborhood, from the local criminals to your family member neighbors to every part of the neighborhood in one spot. And, that's kind of been our way of working ever since, really, in the neighborhood: sort of developing projects that don't have any barriers and so everybody kind of has a way to key into it.
GR: I think it's also in these gray zones, but—
MC: Because, art is social-based, it's art-based, it's... And, it's confusing enough that nobody can really connect to it on a personal level in that way, but everybody can. Does that make sense?
GR: I think a lot of our work comes out of confusion. Because, we live in this corner house that used to be, once upon a time, a deli in the neighborhood. It's one of those corner-store type... and, some of the older residents remember it as a deli and candy store and they... people knew that we were new and we would leave the door open, and I think some of the neighbors still assume that we're either going to open a store or have... So it's always kind of had a weird, somewhat public presence to it.
MC: But, I think confusion creates conversation and then conversation creates community and then it kind of goes from there.
JFR: I like that.
GR: But it’s true, we don't always... Our work isn't necessarily community-based in the sense that people talk about community art maybe, and then it's not even necessarily...
MC: Social practice.
GR: We don't think of it as social practice. It's just like we work in a public manner… And we sort of work in a semi-public studio because a lot of the things around the neighborhood we started doing were just... We start messing with these weird conditions that we didn't know what to do with, and we didn't just want a problem solved. We would address a problem... like the water that was running out of this basement of a house, and by the tenth phone call to the water department and nothing's happening, you're tired of banging your head against the wall and you're like, "Look, it's free water. Let's make a fountain.” We were just... playing with this idea of making a public fountain in the back alley behind an abandoned house, because that was more interesting than calling the water department one more time.
MC: We got a pool, filled up the pool, and made a pool party.
JFR: Well, that brings me to the whole issue of site specificity… Obviously we understand that term, but in the context of your work—you already mentioned something about curators walking into the gallery. So much about your practice is obviously rooted in Detroit. It seems like it could only happen in this place and at this time and I wonder how you feel about that—what the benefits of it may be, because curators are walking in, so there's so much opportunity, but what are the constraints and how would you address that?
MC: People have talked to us about that when we lectured outside of the city and they almost had dismissed the work in that regard, that it's us; it's very specific work based on the Detroit atmosphere. But, for us, we just happened to be here and the work is definitely a result of our environment, but if we move somewhere else it would very different work, but it's adaptable. I think our methodology is very adaptable, how we go about things can sort of fit any place, but the results would always be different. We talk about our practice in very universal terms. That sort of system of rules that we set up for ourselves.
GR: Strategies. I do think it could happen elsewhere because I know... I mean, because I think part of it is just the way you view the city. All cities have edges and weird conditions and issues and dysfunction on some level. So, there's always these disregarded people in places. I mean, I think with Detroit it's just... it's everywhere. And so, you drive through a city like this and because it's everywhere, you just start asking a lot of questions.
I think the difference would be... like if we work somewhere else, how much time do we have to do work? I'm not a fan of parachuting in somewhere else and pitching some idea for some neighborhood that we've never spent time in. So, the fact that we're working where we live means that we know people and people know us very deeply but informally.
JFR: You mentioned something about strategies or rules that you use. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
MC: Sure. Well, intuition is one starting point for me. I mean, even when I was just painting or even not painting… things would kind of come to me as... from the experiences of the day and then I would decide at night what I was going to work on.
Each part of the process is... could be an end point and that's something that I experimented with... Early on in my career, too. When you draw the line, is that enough? Or you draw another line. Is that enough? And so, I always liked the idea that you have to put deliberate, conscious actions to each part of that process so it's not just a way to the end.
GR: For me it was the same way. I'm really interested in working incrementally—and then, slowly over time... It could either be standalone or it builds towards something, but each segment is in and of itself.
GR: And so, that continues through to the work we do, bigger, neighborhood-scale through the nonprofit. It's like we get the resources we can together and we do the most with what we have, even if that means the thing isn't quote-unquote finished. In graduate school, my thesis was about working in geologic time, because I liked this idea of building slowly. And, really... it's the way you work when resources are scarce. And people in Detroit have been doing this for decades. It's not ideal, but it gets you through. So, I was interested in figuring out as an architect, can you actually approach construction that way? If you're going to have a site trailer on a job site, can the site trailer actually... instead of it going away or being this cheap, disposable, ugly thing, can it become part of the... is it the bathroom core or... if every move you make onsite actually is part of a long-term trajectory. Because, I worked on construction sites and they're maddening, the amount of—
GR: Waste of materials, time, and energy, because everything's temporary. You make temporary stairs, a temporary bathroom, a temporary power pole, all this temporary stuff. I couldn't deal with the inefficiency.
JFR: It's geologic in the sense of strata. The layers go on top of each other as opposed to sort of completely—
GR: Erasing it... we do work that way where it's like whatever you can do with what you have, in these small baby steps, but working towards bigger long term goals, and I think part of the reason you can work that way is because we're working slowly over time... in a place.
MC: ...there's always activity. To me it's really important that there's always something happening in the process. So with the Power House, the first house we bought, it was important that we painted. We'd painted these stripes on the side to kind of activate it, to get something going and also to kind of create this energy, and the same with the Ride It Sculpture Park, the skate park we built. It's important to actually have a skate-able portion of it, with whatever money we had. We didn't have enough money to finish the exterior--so it looks ugly, but we just move on to the next phase and we keep going until you're done.
JFR: No, it makes total sense and it seems to be very architectural to think that way. I mean, if you think about people renovating their homes, it’s not unlike the way you're speaking about your work.
GR: Yeah. These are all sort of our own self-initiated projects, like I don't know if you could work with a client this way and we sometimes run into building inspectors who aren't happy with the way we're working, or city officials who are like, "When are you going to make it beautiful?" We're like, "Is that more important? Is that more important than like a hundred kids using it every week?" Our priority is, it's getting used and it's safe.
JFR: Could you talk about your collaboration: not just with each other, but with the larger community, and how you work, what you bring to it, how you work with community?
GR: I mean, it's sorta funny in relation to the show. In a way I really do feel like we're collaborating with Larry, because I knew Larry. In a weird way it really does feel like a collaboration with Larry because he would've never let us know him in this way.
JFR: This is the show that's on view at David Klein Gallery, Organizational Strategies for The After Life?
GR: Yes. Larry lives three doors over from us. This is like all of his stuff and his mother's and family's things that came out of one of the houses.
MC: Yeah. It's a funny collaboration with the dead people in the neighborhood, but it's the living, too, because it's him and people that knew him that we kind of deal with quite a bit. That's kind of the holistic way I guess that we work, too, is that everything that kind of comes into the pot is potential for whatever, meaning people's advice, or people’s own intuitions. There's a funny moment when I was painting the boards on our store front before we took them off, and we tried to make them into something besides just plywood and one of the neighbors asked me what I was doing and I said, "I'm just trying something," and he goes, "Try something else."
GR: He really didn't like the painting Mitch was making—
MC: It’s like the skate park. Everything that we do, it's physical in that way they respond to and some of them are like, "Why isn't it done yet? Why isn't that house done yet?"
JFR: For the benefit of people who may be reading this and aren't familiar with that project, can you speak very specifically, give a little...
MC: Yeah. We're blurring into our nonprofit, Power House Productions, which is a neighborhood-based arts nonprofit run by a mom-and-pop shop artist duo that brings in artists to the neighborhood to work on different site-specific art houses or project houses. Our office, which is a library, and also like a residency house and a meeting space, the Jar House, and then there's the Sound House which is a place for experimental sound and music and then there's a Play House which is a theater that we designed...
MC: Two of the houses are off the grid electric-wise and energy-wise so it's a combination of using architectural technologies and then social projects based in art in the neighborhood, with an end goal always to kind of stimulate the neighborhood, to keep it exciting and interesting and to kind of push it forward so it's a more diverse neighborhood both culturally and ethnically and all the way other ways of diversity. The skate park does that, too. It brings in people from the suburbs, people from across the country; people from across the globe find each other at that spot—which was my experience growing up. I was a skateboarder, too.
JFR: In terms of bringing people in from suburbs or here or there, both in terms of that but more broad terms, how do you address—and maybe you don't think it's applicable at all—but how do you address people who would talk about gentrification in the context of...
GR: No, I think it does come up because I think the formula that a lot of us know by now is it's usually white artists moving into an area. There's some sort of media hype or buzz and then economic development might follow and then the typical formula is sort of like: development follows. For one, those things don't happen just accidentally. There's usually policy in place that incentivizes developers to move in; so part of it is, we end up doing a lot of advocacy and policy on our own time, policy work, whether it's building relationships with city council or the planning department or foundations who talk about all of this stuff and, for us, trying to figure out a way to write a different trajectory for the neighborhood, because we don't want to be part of that formula and a few years ago maybe it seemed like that's way off and now it seems like there is outside interest building around the area.
JFR: I was just going to say that even the term midtown smacks of that because when I moved back here I was like, "What is this midtown people are speaking of?" Then when I realized I thought, "Oh, you mean the Cass Corridor?"
GR: Yeah, so even the naming and terminology starts to change. The other thing for us that we've always said from the beginning is like we encourage people to buy property in the neighborhood and not rent or lease.
MC: That was one of the big problems, because the foreclosure crisis is what got us into buying houses. Because everybody was leaving their houses or burning their houses to get out from under them. Gentrification was not on the radar at all but there needed to be some sort of value put back into the neighborhood. Right, but now it's changed quite a bit and the values are going up and the challenge is to, yeah, again make sure people own it and take ownership also of the way the neighborhood does develop. Now the city's actually talking about development plans for the neighborhood.
GR: I feel like times have changed, and in the 21st century we can't just be passive players. That's not our role. It's like taking responsibility for being a community member the way artists need to be active community members, and it's definitely not stuff that artists usually want to get dragged into.
GR: I dragged Mitch to a lot of meetings.
MC: Yeah, I try to loosely become like a block club captain; so we've become like the community liaisons, partly because it's a heavily immigrant neighborhood and they have a hard time getting inroads into those systems and we know them a little bit better... I guess to go back to gentrification, too, is... gentrification is always one-sided. It's about money and development and getting return, and this is more about making the neighborhood better for everybody but on a sort of even raising of the bar.
GR: When we first bought the Power House, this first project house that we started, part of the thing we talked about is this idea of value and who defines what is valuable in the community. It was a bank foreclosure. So we bought this house for very little money where three or four years before that—
GR: Two years before that, like an $80,000 loan had been given on the same property. It's like, why would we play by the system that over-inflates, and in a knee-jerk, two-year-later reaction, undervalues the same thing? Nothing changed in that neighborhood physically over the course of those two years. So it's all external make believe, pretend forces at work, and if you step back and are like, "This is actually a system that's not based in reality, and it's not based in the reality that we're living in... So let's reject it. We don't have to follow this illogical nonsense." So let's take that approach community-wide, and then you don't let the bottom line make all the decisions for the direction that your community, your neighborhood's going in.
It's also like the meetings and the typical language and the typical ways of doing things around planning exercises and engagement strategies and all this stuff that's supposed to lead towards an informed plan for the neighborhood moving forward are super boring and don't usually lead where anyone... I don't know. To me, they don't necessarily work. For us, that's where the arts comes back in and it's like, "Isn't there a way to do this that's actually interesting and informative and engaging and doesn't result in a brochure, but actually results in a shared experience or something amazing happening physically in the community that we can all just witness instead of be convinced of?"
MC: That's where art comes in. Art is the bridge of all the information to the human side of things. I think that's what I see in these plans, too, is it's all this information but there's no way of relaying it to either funders or the public and so it never gets off the ground, or it gets off the ground only with people that understand that forum. That's gentrification--it’s like it's a closed system. It's a closed loop but art is about humanity.
JFR: That would be a good segue to talk about the work that's on view here, and in terms of how you reconcile that with your broader practice, or how you even sort of, shift focus, or whether it's a continuity—
GR: Yeah, because I think really the work in the gallery, it's all about the people who were in these spaces and two different houses, two different stories of what happened, but it's the—
MC: The loss of people, the loss of life but also just the absence. That's my experience growing up in this area--people are leaving and there's this loss and even if they just moved [and] they're still around, the immediate community has lost something. They lost that asset. They've lost that community member, and with the houses it was a loss of both people that we knew and we didn't know and then you lose that history.
GR: Doing it through what they left behind, so the thing [is] we were able to get to know all of this or their stories or them more intimately because they left behind all of the stuff inside of this house.
JFR: It's interesting to think about. This hadn't occurred to me before, but one would associate that kind of discovery or archeological excavation or what have you with somebody who has died because obviously it happened abruptly, but in the context of the foreclosure crisis and whatnot, typically people move and they pack up their stuff and they leave but in so many instances there was so much left behind in terms of—
MC: In the case of the first house we worked with in the show, there was an older man who just left abruptly and the neighbors called us and said, "We think he left, can you help us secure the house?" It was literally, food was still out; he just left. It wasn't just that. It was three generations were still there, of stuff and that was super fascinating to us. Yeah, it's both.
JFR: I couldn’t help but notice the medium lines on the labels. You might expect to see something generic like “mixed media”, but yours are so specific they insist on iterating everything in them.
MC: Yeah, like the one with the mouse. You can’t even see the mouse, but it has to be in there. It’s like Robert Irwin early on in his career, I guess: he started off fixing cars and he was really into... He was in California and souping up cars. He was really into the idea that he would polish and finish every single part that you would never see. He would spend hours and hours on some weird part inside the car that you'd never see. For him, it resonated in the end product; so it's always completing the whole picture even if you never see it.
JFR: So for your work, obviously, that's so important.
MC: Through and through, yeah. I think it has that weight. It's like the difference between a set design for a play where it's just superficial versus something that is all the way, the geological moment.
GR: Yeah, it's really deep, exactly. That's nice.
JFR: Maybe we should talk about the Ushers of the Accumulated because that seems to be, in terms of the work in the galleries, where it started, or starts that project.
GR: It's sort of our way, again, to bring the context into the gallery. It's one of the things we had talked about a lot with our studio work. Because things are so site specific, then when we're making work that is to be shown somewhere else, how do you present that and present it in a way where we're not just presenting documentation of the process, or not so direct?
MC: Yeah, I'm not a fan of doing things the practical way because it's boring and then you lose interest.
GR: It's to hold Mitch's attention.
MC: Yeah, it's creating a ritual to some things to keep my attention, especially something as tedious as removing thousands of pounds of debris out of someone's house. Knowing that I wanted to respect the people there, but then to respect their stuff and then also I'm curious to see what I find... If you just start throwing it out, you lose that narrative and the story—
GR: Part of it is about trying to create some sort of ceremony, again, before moving on to the next chapter of these places, because the previous inhabitants so unceremoniously left. We knew that Larry had passed away, but there wasn't any sort of a formal... or where other people were invited to a funeral to say goodbye. So part of it is like this idea of passing on, like laying them to rest and then passing on in terms of a transition. And it's transition to their, I guess, afterlife or post life now that they're not on Klinger Street physically anymore, but it's also I think for the people who still are in the neighborhood transitioning on to what follows. So it's: some of the videos are sort of us making up a ceremony as we're doing the work of cleaning out the house.
JFR: You said somewhere that the negative-positive transformative moment is where your work originates. Then you were also saying earlier, you were talking about how iterative it turns out to be, how every process is an end point, so I wonder is this an end point or where does it go from here?
MC: It's a blip on the radar screen. It continues... the paintings continue... the sculptures continue. We've already been making them in our studio just because we have to organize all the stuff. We're sort of making more stacks for practical purposes but then they become pretty funny, sort of cubes now.
GR: Yeah, like on palettes, they get Saran wrapped.
MC: Yeah. We still want to process all this stuff, but we don't want to keep it all, but the ceremony's sort of continuing in that regard. And I obviously want to keep painting the paintings until I can't do it anymore, until infinity.
GR: Yeah, this was almost like the--
MC: The beginning.
GR: This was like “invite everyone to the party to say goodbye” in a way.
JFR: The show?
MC: They don't know it but this is the funeral. Yeah, this is like laying it to rest. This is the showing, or any other term you can say.
GR: Yeah, we just have to figure out what to do with all the materials that aren't here. There's like a warehouse full of stuff. There's all this visual material in the houses. Part of the idea with the show, in the letting go, is to abstract or conceptualize some of it, so it becomes less about the physical overwhelming-ness of these houses that were full of these hoards of things and it can become something more, I don't know, ethereal in order to let go. I keep saying let go, but it's...
MC: Move on.
GR: ...move on, yeah.
JFR: I think that's probably a great place to stop.
Featured Image: Artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert as mischief characters.
All Images courtesy of the artists.