Tonight at MOCAD, San Francisco archive activist Rick Prelinger showed an hour’s worth of material from his vast collection of film images of Detroit from the first three quarters of the 20th century (earliest 1917; latest in the 70s). I attended, along with several hundred other people—the space was full to overflowing. The screening was open to audience participation, and Prelinger, after his opening statement, encouraged vocal responses.

This dynamic made for a unique occasion. To begin with, the range of Prelinger’s material was limited—indeed, its limitations made for a kind of interpretive framework in themselves. We saw clips of downtown and water transport (modernity); the auto industry (mode of production); suburbs (community) and family (reproduction); police work (power); and local landmarks that no longer exist (history). We did not see sufficient images of labor or the black community, as Prelinger noted, likely due to the distribution and use of home movies.

Not all of the images were amateur—there were a number of public images, civic promotion or training films. Here the discourse of Prelinger’s collection revealed itself between public images, everyday ideology that can be ignored or assumed but is loaded with assumptions, and private images that show how life is lived unselfconsciously within ideology. Prelinger’s politics of the image are reminiscent of an earlier work he collaborated on, Atomic Cafe (1982), where the image of the bomb itself becomes the locus of terror and control.

The screening was an event, and the audience was at its center. As images began to stretch memory, people would call out: “Boblo!” for the Boblo Ferry; “Penobscot Building” or “Book Cadillac” for modernist buildings; “East Side” or “West Side”  for unknown blocks; “Michigan and Wyoming” for a still existing factory building; “Old City Hall” for a public building commemorating Detroit’s 250th anniversary, where “Truman gave a speech on those steps in 1950”; “Cass Tech” or “McKenzie”  for the highschool; “Black Bottom” and “Paradise Valley” for the black neighborhood that was paved over by I-75 in the 50s, and so on.

The viewer had an experience not only of historical glimpses, rare and evocative in themselves, but of the reconstitution of spaces and places of Detroit that existed in the memory of the audience, and which were being brought back into existence through the images. The event was a filmic lieu de mémoire (site of memory), in real time and space, and gave form to Detroit’s always anticipated renewal through a vision of the “midwest’s most cosmopolitan city” it once was. The gaps between images is the community.

On the side of critique: since the images were not all amateur footage but included a good deal of public material, Prelinger might have sought out some available footage of the Detroit riots (1943 or 1967), which were not evident. It is rare to view images of those events; they are tightly controlled, and their resonances are still volatile. Prelinger’s commitments, in general, are to the poetics of everyday life, and there is much to be revealed there. These are the long periods of boredom that are punctuated by brief moments of terror—riots, war, strikes, violence. But we need to see some punctuation of historical, and a sense of the human decisions that led to Detroit’s undoing, rather than simply mourn its loss again.

A note: on leaving the exhibition, I walked to my car (a Prius) in a lot, surrounded by a chain link fence, behind the museum, to find the window had been smashed, the car gone through, though nothing of value was taken. I will need to get it fixed tomorrow. I took this as a sign of Detroit’s comeback, that there is enough going on to care.

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