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Rust in Detroit: Ingenuity, Process, and Natural Order

“Rust” guest editors Laura Mott (left) and Taylor Renee Aldridge (right).

Rust is a familiar element throughout Detroit’s landscape. It is the evidence of decay on the exterior of a dated automobile. It is seen on the steel structure of a vacant factory, one that most likely produced cars from rust’s parent, iron. Rust is the result of oxygen and water—elements essential for human life—interacting over time with iron, an essential material for human ingenuity.

Quite often we hear that a rebirth is happening in the city of Detroit, yet the reality is not as dramatic. Rather, the city’s economy and landscape is a result of natural order: a present based on a sequence of people, places, and things that are a result of failed utopian modernity. Once a model city for the burgeoning middle-class in twentieth century America, people came to Detroit from all over the world to work in manufacturing factories, make a good living, and buy into the American Dream. However, due to automation, outsourcing of jobs, and the city’s precarious race relations, divestment in Detroit and its people ensued. In 2008, the city was hit the hardest by the economic downturn and Detroit’s main source of employment, the automotive industry, was immediately compromised. Many believe this decline was inevitable and a painful process of a natural cycle. In this issue, we liken this organic cause and effect to the transition of sedimentary rocks to iron that inevitably turns into rust by way of time.

As exemplified by its artists, the story of the city is much more nuanced, textured, and interesting

The process of rust is accelerated when humans withdraw their interest, care, and investment from an object. The presence or absence of rust is a character in two concurrent narratives about the city. The story of Detroit as a city rusted into petrification is one side of the pendulum, the “American tragedy” headline that ignores the city’s population of nearly seven hundred thousand residents. The second, more recent, depiction is of a renaissance with rebranded infrastructure that ignores the true condition of Detroit and the socioeconomic reality of its majority Black population. As exemplified by its artists, the story of the city is much more nuanced, textured, and interesting. As an abundant material in the city, rust has been adapted by some Detroit artists to speak to issues of labor, time, and consequence. Likewise, there are contemporary artists who avoid it, in favor of materials unmoored by legacy. As editors, the topic of rust is not simply about surface or decay, but is rooted in an interest in artistic process, lived research, and material-driven narratives. Despite the retreat of industry and density, residents have sustained the city and striven for progress; the artists featured here are testaments that ingenuity never left.

The alchemical nature of rust and the natural order of Detroit’s economic conditions prompt this edition of Art21 Magazine. To provide insight on Detroit and its artists, we invited makers, writers, and artists to reflect, challenge, and complicate the narrative of this enigmatic city. Additionally, Art21 Magazine’s regular contributors will expand the scope of our editorial investigation, exploring notions of rust as they’re represented in the art and landscapes of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and beyond.

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