Urban Interiors Project

Wayne State University

Urban Interiors Project is an ongoing collaboration between photographer Bruce Harkness and historian John Bukowczyk intended to document, through photographs and interviews, the lives of Detroit’s Poletown/Chene District residents. The area under examination, which is located on the city’s east side, was once a solid working-class enclave that has gradually become blighted; in 1980, for instance, 3,400 residents and 140 businesses were displaced and 1,200 buildings razed there in order to make room for an industrial park, which currently houses a General Motors plant. Since its inception in 1987, the project has accumulated an archive of several thousand images and more than 70 hours of taped interviews with some 140 former residents of the area. An investigation of material culture—personal possessions, their arrangement, and the meanings they carry—has been a central concern of the project from its beginnings. This installation consisted of more than 100 photographs, which were juxtaposed with excerpts from the interviews of several of the individuals portrayed.

Harkness’ work follows the documentary tradition of Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and the photographers of the Farm Security Administration. His pictures are posited as the evidence of “the way it was” at the instant of exposure. But unlike most photojournalism, where capturing the singular dramatic moment is of paramount importance, these photographs seek to reveal the everyday. The compositions are almost artless in their frontal orientation. Titling the various images by the sitter’s name, street, and city assigns to them an indexical role.

The question of the problematic nature of representation is relevant in considering the work of Harkness and Bukowczyk. In industrialized cultures, the photographic image is a prime mediator of the empirical. It is consumed as information and creates a data base from which the constructs of ideologies are partly formed. Media-delivered fictions seek to replace information with entertainment, thereby dissolving experience into spectacle. In its specificity, the Urban Interiors Project is a call to action: it is a first step in a process of change. In its “naming of names,” it acts as a discursive articulation of the space in which it operates.

It is here that another, perhaps more topical, interpretation of representation becomes significant. Rather than being a substitute for the individuals and histories recorded, the project undertaken by Harkness and Bukowczyk provides a channel of communication for the residents of the Poletown/Chene District—the subjects speak for themselves, instead of being spoken for. In this way, private bodies enter the public sphere. The project has a definite political thrust: besides giving voice to those whose thoughts are seldom recorded, it raises questions regarding what is often deemed significant for preservation. Working from Michel Foucault’s construct of “counter-memory,” Harkness and Bukowczyk create a model that coincides with Martha Rosler’s call for documentary to be “tied to a concrete collective public purpose of social amelioration or transformation.” It commands our attention.

Vincent A. Carducci