Industrial Ruins, Digital Gallery: An Interview with Lowell Boileau

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08/05/2005

Detroit, MI

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

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“Athens has got ruins, Rome has got ruins. Ours are bigger, but there’s no guidebook to them.”

—Lowell Boileau

Part collage, part museum, part mausoleum, and all constructed around a series of intricately conceived online “tours,” detroityes.com depicts Detroit’s past and present in a library containing thousands of vivid photographic images.

For many, the centerpiece of the website is “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit,” an online photo album which takes visitors on a tour of the city’s many remarkable abandoned buildings. Including police station houses, misbegotten franchises from the likes of Holiday Inn and Sears, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architectural gems in a variety of famous styles, ornate hotels that loom forbiddingly over the skyline, and, most of all, historic auto plants, “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” is both a lament and a celebration for these buildings and their various states of lonely disrepair. Since the website was founded by Lowell Boileau in 1998, new e-tours of landmarks from the history of soul music (soulfuldetroit.com) and key locations in the city's once-thriving Jewish community (shtetlhood.com)have also been added.

In 2003, the Detroit Metro Times, the Detroit Free Press, and Hour magazine lauded detroityes.com as the best Detroit website of the year. Recently I talked to Mr. Boileau, erstwhile visual artist and Detroit area native, as well as the founder of detroityes.com, and he was good enough to share his views on the neglect and loss of America’s historic auto plants, recent improvements in Detroit’s economic condition, and the artistic possibilities of the Internet.

Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood: So, I was wondering if you could tell us about the website, and how you started it, and how it has gotten to be so big, what with over 1,000 images and all.

Lowell Boileau: It gets over 2 million visitors a year now and in the range of 30 million page hits . . . The original site ["The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit"] is, well, first, of all, my background is I’m a fine art painter. When the web came along, I started trying to sell my paintings on the web, and I realized it’s an art medium. And so I created what I call “for-art websites” like Detroityes and Soulfuldetroit. And so this was, being an urban landscape painter, Detroityes was in some ways an attempt to paint a giant portrait of Detroit. You see? The web is my new paint and canvas. And then to take it beyond that, then I involve the audience by making them into the question of what went wrong, and how does it go right, essentially.

It also started out a little tongue and cheek—Rome has got ruins, Athens has got ruins. Ours our bigger, but there’s no guidebook to them. And so it was to . . . tell that, and was kind of a different approach, I guess. That’s it in a nutshell.

MBN: The difference between our ruins and their ruins might be that ours seem so much more fragile. If there were an official occasion for this interview, it would be that the Studebaker factory, one of Detroit’s most historic factories, just burned down [on June 21, 2005]. One of the most important sites in industrial history is gone forever. Can you tell us a little bit about why there are not more serious efforts to preserve these sites?

LB: The National Auto Heritage Organization is doing some things with them. The original Model T plant, the preservation group is taking care of that and protecting it. The most important one, in my opinion, that is, the most important factory in history, the Highland Park Model T plant, nothing is being done with that, unfortunately. I mean, this is the one where the moving assembly line construction starts. Everything—the whole birth of the modern car is there, essentially. That’s unfortunate. Detroit’s got pressing problems, they need to redevelop, and it’s complicated—let me put it that way. With Detroit’s poverty.

MBN: I recently picked up Time magazine, and I was dismayed to learn that they had named current Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick the worst mayor in the country [in the April 17, 2005 issue of Time].

LB: Well, one of the three. They didn’t name him the worst, but they said, “These three are the worst.” [The other two worst were, according to Time, Dick Murphy of San Diego and John Street of Philadelphia.]

MBN: Do you think that the economic situation is so advanced that no political efforts to turn it around can possibly succeed? There appeared to have been a lot of enthusiasm around Dennis Archer’s tenure as mayor in the 1990’s, but not very much seems to have come out of that, either.

LB: I disagree with that completely. First of all, I think that Detroit has turned around. It turned around in 1995. It turned around under Archer in 1995, and if you compare downtown Detroit in 1995 and now, it’s day and night. I mean, you could have shot a cannon down most streets in Detroit on a weekend night and not hit anyone. And when you consider the area from the Fox [Theatre, restored in the early 1990's] down to the Renaissance [Center], what’s going on there with the stadiums, the casinos--for better or worse--the residential, the housing that’s going on there, hundreds and hundreds of units of loft conversion, Campus Martius Park, the whole Winter Garden extension to the Renaissance Center, the new Park Hilton, it goes on and on. It’s really quite remarkable. The West side, downtown, is still lagging. And they have lots of others in the greater city itself, but . . . there have also been thousands of residential permits, especially if you compare it to the Coleman Young [Detroit mayor from 1974-1994] low point of zero residential permits.

It’s a got a long way to come up, and the appearance may not be perceptible, but here’s an old timer here—it’s amazing. And it’s continued under Kwame, but somewhat out of . . . but there’s economic reasons, too. The economy, the auto economy, is not doing well right now.»

You know, I don’t know if you read the forum on the website, but this is where I get all of my information, basically [Both Detroityes.com and Soulfuldetroit.com have online forums, with over 3,000 registered users between the two of them]. And there’s quite a good article today on how difficult a job it is being mayor, they quoted an article from the Free Press by Bill McGraw [Detroit Free Press columnist], and a discussion’s taken off on it. The big problem with Detroit is that the city of Detroit has to take care of all the poor people, the homeless, the felons, the single parent families, the poor people who can’t pay taxes, while the rest of the communities and the families of Detroit take a walk.

They don’t have to go out and face panhandlers when they go to the store where I live here in Farmington, let’s say, or in other places. Added to that they get high insurance rates and the declining place to live in experience. End of sermon.

MBN: One of the things that I especially like about the site is its lack of sentimentality. In addition to the fact that the neglect of these buildings represents a loss of and lack of respect for history, the truth is that they are also, as the site says, simply “Fabulous.” They have their own kind of grandeur and even beauty.

LB: Absolutely. They’re like the ancient ruins. They have that visual aspect to them and that was what drew them to me in the first place.

MBN: What surprises me about your city paintings is that they have this pristine quality to them. And, at the same time, nature insinuates itself into the cities through puddles, trees in incongruous locations, and so forth. And in your paintings of natural landscapes, by contrast, technology does the same thing—insinuate itself just slightly into the image, as in a single road curving through a vast hillside. Nature and technology seem to have a yin and yang kind of relationship in your paintings.

LB: Well, you know, you picked up on that. These American painters in the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson River School, all of their work was very similar in certain ways, in the ways that they saw pristine nature being encroached on by civilization, cleared lands, and at the same time they were also very taken by the dramatic aspects of landscape, and sky and light. And this is sort of the other end of it, where nature’s coming back. This is also sort of a theme in a lot of Dutch Renaissance-style paintings, and things like that, and I’m not saying I’m particularly trying to copy those or anything, but I think that I feel moved in a similar way.

MBN: The way that you paint cars reminds me of Futurism.

LB: Maybe it was on a subtle level. A lot of that deals with an excuse for the more abstract issues that I was trying to deal with, in a representational framework, and also to deal with the micropoint painting technique that I use, that only uses the three primary colors, where you use white as a hole in the paint, basically. It’s complex, let me put it that way.

MBN: Would you feel like telling us about any new stuff that’s going on?

LB: I just did a painting and photographic show in January, the first hard-copy painting I’ve done in a while. If you go to detroityes.com/360 you’ll see the presentation of that show. But my art medium and my art effort is mainly digital right now, the for-art websites, and I just did a major revision of shtetlhood.com, the “Lost Synagogues of Detroit”. It’s basically a presentation and a tracing of them and of the African-American congregations that have largely taken them over since then. It’s a completely audience-authored artwork in that I solicit the comments and the memories from the audience, and that becomes the text and the description for the site. And, so that was—I just added about twenty new sites I found to that, and I also improved the ability for people to leave their memories, share their memories, and that has been my main thing lately.

MBN: One of the things that I think is neat about web design is the way it incorporates changes over time, so that a portrait on the Internet can be more fluid and dynamic than a conventional portrait. This especially comes through, I think, in the “Urban Prairies” section of detroityes.com, where the visitor can click between aerial photographs of the same city neighborhood taken in the 1940's, when rows and rows of houses had been there, and in recent years, after virtually all of them had been demolished.

LB: Well, that’s true. The tremendous thing is the interaction part. That’s what sets this art medium apart totally from painting. Painting as interaction: You hang some work at a show, people come and then they talk about it briefly there, then some rich guy buys it. End of conversation. With them [the websites], there’s, like, an ongoing art opening. Not only between the artist and the audience, but also within the audience itself. And that takes off, they come in, and now the audience becomes a participant in it by contributing to the discussions. And if you look in the discussions at all, you’ll discover numerous pictures that people post in there, you know, so something happens in a certain place, and somebody’s got a picture of it. It goes outside of itself, in terms of artwork, outside of the artist’s control, in a lot of ways. To me, that’s why I’m so sucked into it. I can’t hardly paint anymore.

MBN: Wow, well, thanks a lot. You’ve told us some really neat stuff. First I have to type up this interview, then you’ll be able to look at it on the website if you want.

LB: I will. I checked it [Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood] out, and I see where you’re going with it.

MBN: Great.

LB: OK. Shoot me an email when you’ve got it up, OK?

MBN: I will.

LB: OK. Have a good day.

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