Care: Reversing The Death of a City Under The Vestige of Community Activism and Social Engagement.

“Seconds from annihilation. But no one stopped to think about the people or how they would survive, and we almost lost Detroit, This time.”(1)


The midwestern city and its neighboring siblings are under a period of unanticipated reurbanization, standing in stark contrast to the bankruptcy that plagued Detroit in 2013. Blame Shifts to Millenials (2) as the gentrifying generation of student loans and social consciousness. While these coming-of-age inhabitants are continually re-evaluating their position in this cosmopolitan landscape, a collective solidarity and culture of activism is taking root. Screen mediated dialogues are becoming the stethoscopic platform for finding methods of engagement in the city. 


Not far from the midwest, at the University of Manitoba, a letter addressed to the student body was published illustrating the youthful enthusiasm for engagement, “Activism is giving a shit…. And if you care, care a lot.” (3)  Caring, in the past held over one’s head in favor of a fashionable, pessimistic dissonance, is now cool again. Under this aesthetic and moral climate, Social Practice has gained a visibility among practitioners and theorists, embraced entirely by the liberal arts educated municipality migrants, fluent in social justice and mobilization. 

As one understands care, there is an artistic lineage to be traced from activism and art of the seventies, Joseph Beuys and his theory of social sculpture established the aesthetics of collective engagement. Although care is not measured in gestures and developments, but that is where care is most visible. To say it’s measured at all might be a mischaracterization. “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” (4) Over time the question posed by Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, has been answered to fit the contemporary artistic landscape. Social Practice is the “Politics of staying.” As Theaster Gates puts it, “I believe in the place, and I’m invested in it.”(5) Although the revolution has come and gone, or never was, the urban setting, and its health is dependent on a practice of care. 


1. Care to Intervene​

In 1993, a group of artists and healthcare practitioners collaborated on developing a sustainable method for growing sterile food for HIV/AIDS patients in poor inner city areas that has recently been categorized as food deserts. Haha, Flood: A Volunteer Network for Active Participation in Healthcare(6), was carried out in a storefront in Rogers Park in Chicago as an attempt to establish a vital, and previously inaccessible, service to an especially vulnerable population. A practice of care for people and bodies of a city. 

Urban farming initiatives have been used as alternative methods of activism in opposition to ecological concerns in the wake of alarming statistics of climate change. The effects of which are now being felt on “The reluctant vanguard registering modern imbalance and toxicity; thermometers and first responders gauging the earth’s wellbeing through our own.”(7) The Canaries is a collective operating out of New York, representing this population through activism and guerrilla publication, Notes for the Waiting Room, being a pamphlet/manifesto acting as both a call to action and an ally for the chronically ill, being distributed through the waiting room of healthcare professionals. 


The wellbeing of a city and its inhabitants are measured in biological, fiscal, and spiritual health. Care as an intervention, on both the functions of a city and body, is the an act of urgency, re-establishing stability in volatile conditions. Radical acts of intervention are necessary only in the possibility of municipal and bodily mortality. Urban death has its own indications of declining health, witnessed closely during the bankruptcy of Detroit in 2013. “Anything less than the language of pathology, curative intervention, and death seems inadequate for understanding what has occurred.”(8) Now the City of Flint, two hours north of Detroit, is experiencing similar symptoms, in response to this artists have focused their efforts on activism as a vehicle for participation. Pope L. in a recent project raised $30,000 in the cities struggle for clean water. This project became understood as “one Midwest city helping another struck by similar blight.”(9)


Activism as political/ aesthetic undertakings to address the symptoms of declining community vitality and the resulting projects (such as the ones previously mentioned in this section) have new sets of liabilities in the art world. The distinctions between social practice and social work are especially stark in the perceived subjectivity of the former and the intricacies of the latter. Artists being often ill equipped in dealing with ramifications of social work, risk the possibility of damaging a community’s social dynamic. Just as the care of a friend cannot replace the care of a doctor on a body in crisis, as artists “We can be mediators only if we recognize the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.”(10)

2. Care to Nurture

Following crisis, and during periods of perceived prosperity in a city the nature and direction of care changes. Signifying stability, art’s potential to contribute to the social welfare is no longer constrained by a sense of urgency. Maintenance, nourishment, and vitality is the language of post-studio and social practice during these periods. Celebration, development, and education compose the dominant conceptual framework for projects made under these stretches, while not ignoring the critical capacity these works still have. Long term engagement with the city and a practice of presence is the fuel for potent and nourishing projects. 


“I got my city doing front flips 

When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship

I guess that’s why they call it where I stay

Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play”(11)



Started in 2015, in collaboration with the Chicago Public Library, artist Chance The Rapper has hosts an ongoing series of open mic nights for Chicago youth titled OpenMike, and SocialWorks, as an initiative to providing elementary school aged children music education and a platform for showcasing their works at the OpenMike events. South of the Harold Washington Library is the Dorchester Projects, a two story building in Chicago’s south side, renovated by Theaster Gates into a community arts platform. Practicing wholly the politics of staying, the neighborhoods, and the city becomes a platform for post-studio practice. “By the time I left for college, I knew that our city was a machine to be understood, and that if you could understand it you could make it work on your behalf.”(12) Care as an exchange, received and expressed is only possible in an ongoing engagement with the setting and the community. 

3. Care to Engage

The contemporary Artist is no longer developing work along ‘intuitive’ processes in a desolate studio. A working method of continuous contextualization of one’s own practice is becoming the working method for aligning ideas and efforts into the sociopolitical spectrum. The contemporary artist recognizes that art is inherently socially engaging, conceptual, political, and gendered, all to varying degrees of success and clarity. The mechanisms for cultural cultivation at all levels between the institution and the household have been appropriated for aesthetic mediation and critical investigation. The contemporary artist is in a new position with the duty/privilege to exercise care through engagement in all aspects of the community. 


“You may look at things ten or fifteen times a day and see potential, …. Others might look ten times a day at problems that the city presents and get depressed.”(13)


Practitioners living with their eyes open, occupied with the economy of sights, sounds, and experience, the new generation of artists intend to democratize the aesthetic experience by collaboration and conversation with communities far removed from discourse on contemporary art, but affected by the powers of aesthetic inclusion and investigation the same. 

Care is to the body as it is to community, holding the capacity to intervene, nurture, and engage. Mobilizing the solidarity, and empathy, against apathy, and against slow death. 

End Notes:

1:Gill Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson, 1977, We Almost Lost Detroit, Bridges.

2: Hobbs, Corey. “Millennials: The Re-Urbanization of America.” Medium, The Other Narrative, 11 May 2016,

3: Turnbull, Al. “Letter to the Students.” The Manitoban, University of Manitoba, 19 Nov. 2015,

 4: Mierle Laderman-Ukeles. Manifesto For Maintenance Art. 1969. Exhibition proposal, New York, New York.

5: Theaster Gates. "Theaster Gates." Interview by Lilly Wei. Art in America. December 5, 2011. Accessed February 20, 2019.

6:Richard House , Wendy Jacob, A. Laurie Palmer, and John Ploof. Haha, Flood: A Volunteer Network For Active Participation In Healthcare. 1993-1995. Rogers Park, Chicago.

7:Canaries Collective. Notes for the Waiting Room. Compiled by Taraneh Fazelli. New York, NY, 2017.

8: Peter Eisinger, "Is Detroit Dead?" Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. 1 (2014): 1-12.

9: Pope L. Flint Water. 2017. Detroit, MI. Exhibited at What Pipeline Gallery Detroit, September 7 - October 28 2017.

10: Stephen Pritchard. "Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially Engaged Art and the Dangers of Becoming Social Workers." COLOURING IN CULTURE. November 15, 2018. Accessed March 2, 2019.

11: Chancelor Bennet,  "Angels." By Chancelor Bennet, Nate Nathaniel Fox, Tahj Chandler, Peder Losnegard, Nicolas Segal, and Peter Wilkens. In Coloring Book. Chance The Rapper. Lido; The Social Experiment, 2016, MP3.

12: John Colapinto, "The Real-Estate Artist." The New Yorker. June 19, 2017. Accessed March 5, 2019.

13: Tom Finkelpear, Rick Lowe. "Social Vision and A Cooperative Community." In What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, 132-51. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.