Detroit's Skyline

Winner of the Richard Meisler Writing Award in American Culture, University of Michigan, 2017. 

THE EMERGENCE OF SKYLINES

The night is still along the Rivière Détroit. The last of the day’s waves ripple, rise, and then fall against the stone-scattered shore. Gulls teeter on the rocks, flutter their feathers, and tuck down their heads. The air hums with a layer of humidity and chimes with an ensemble of katydids. Fireflies blink, slowly floating in unseen patterns toward a dimly lit sky. 1

And in that low light, along the river, walls built of birch break the horizon; they are, but for the old-growth forest, Detroit’s first skyline.

Fort Detroit was built in the early eighteenth century, however, the word “skyline” would not be used for another hundred years. The Oxford English Dictionary would later define it: “the line where the earth meets the sky.”2 And even later, a second definition: “the outline or silhouette of a building or a number of buildings [...] seen against the sky.”3 The emergence of the latter definition coincided with the growth and development of cities as they industrialized. When a city expanded—both up and out—the skyline evolved. The line where the earth met the sky was no longer visible. In its place, a new skyline emerged—an uneven, ragged skyline, derived from metal and steel.

This emergence of early skyscrapers in the late nineteenth century was, for the most part, an American phenomenon. While European cities had the technology and capital required, distinct cultural values stymied a sharp escalation of their building heights. For most European cities, “one tower sufficed,” usually in the form of a governmental building or a cathedral.4 In contrast, American cities, specifically New York and Chicago, “had no such restraint.”5 Firms in these cities competed for visibility along the skyline as owners boasted of their buildings’ impressive heights. The availability of steel, skilled labor, and complimentary technology—elevators, plumbing, electricity—also made building skyscrapers more feasible in American cities.6 Demand for taller, larger buildings increased as economic organization occurred at a rapid pace. The formation of big corporations necessitated headquarters locations for practical reasons, as well as symbolic. Monumental buildings aided companies’ reputations as viable and trustworthy to consumers, and thus “headquarters buildings became corporate logos.”7

Skylines became both a symbol for American cities and a fascination of American society. They became a stand-in for many of the attributes of city life, real or perceived, which included favorable economic conditions and higher standards of living. Therefore as buildings climbed higher and higher, a story of upward mobility—a story of wealth, prosperity and opportunity—was embedded in their image. In short: a story of the American Dream.

Skylines have a seemingly neutral aesthetic appeal. They are like flowers, sunsets, or waterfalls—considered universally beautiful. They are our desktop backgrounds, the photos that we hang in our hallway. But what do we mean when we put them there? At their most basic purpose, they satisfy the eye as something pleasing to look at. And perhaps at their most complex, we consider them the urban sublime: they represent the mastery of the built environment.

As mentioned before, skylines are also storytellers. However, the message that images of skylines convey—though treated as such—is certainly not neutral: skyline imagery plays an influential role in projecting a specific image of a city. The angle, the lighting, the coloring, whether it is a long shot, whether it is a close up, if the streets are empty, if the streets are populated—all of these factors help to shape perceptions of the skyline. And therein lies the danger. If we accept that imagery of skylines are symbols for cities, then they become the basis on which our perception of those cities lie.

 

TRACING DETROIT’S SKYLINE

Detroit is an example of this phenomenon. Detroit’s skyline is not iconic, but it has become significantly more famous in recent years as groups and businesses have appropriated it to suit their needs. The use of Detroit’s skyline has perpetuated specific narratives—Detroit is on the rise, Detroit is a ruin—however, how much of the city is truly reflected in these narratives? The use of the skyline as a synonym for the city seems to say, “all of it.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, Detroit was “America’s ‘Arsenal of Democracy,’ one of the nation’s fastest growing boomtowns, and home to the highest-paid blue-collar workers.”8 The creation of its skyline fell in line with this familiar pattern of urban growth. As its population climbed, as its economy bloomed, so then, did its skyline. However, within the story of growth, the story of Detroit’s decline ultimately began. A myriad of simultaneous forces contributed, among them: “the flight of jobs,” “the persistence of workplace discrimination,” and “intractable racial segregation in housing.”9 Detroit’s skyline reflects this decline— when compared to other rust belt cities, it comes up short, quite literally, when the city’s square footage and population are taken into consideration. If the skyline can trace the economic patterns of the city, then what other parts of Detroit’s story are embedded in that image as well?

If we start from the beginning, we start with churches and government buildings—the first buildings to exceed heights beyond that of the fort walls. By 1828, the highest steeple pointed 140 feet toward the sky—and that number only increased from there. Most Holy Trinity Church (1866) stretched to 170 feet; City Hall (1871) reached 200 feet (matched by St. Joseph’s Church in 1873); Fort Street Presbyterian Church (1877) climbed to 265 feet—making it the tallest church in Detroit and one of the tallest churches in the United States.10 Similar to European cities of the time, Detroit’s tallest buildings had symbolic implications to the city’s cultural values: places of worship and places of democracy rose above everything else.

The Ford Building became the tallest building in Detroit in 1909. It marked the beginning of a new era for the city’s skyline: the tallest building in the city was neither a church nor a government building. In contrast, it was a place of business—an office in the financial district. The Ford Building was succeeded by the Chrysler House, the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Buhl Building, the Penobscot Building. By the late 1920s, Detroit’s tallest buildings were pushing 400 feet, and nearly all were located in the financial district. The Penobscot Building remained Detroit’s tallest building for nearly fifty years. In 1977, the Renaissance Center took over the title at 727 feet, and remains Detroit’s tallest building today. In a century and a half, Detroit’s height increased fourfold.11 The emergence of skyscrapers had the same effect on other American cities—city skylines across the country were elevated hundreds of feet at rapid paces. In the same span of time Detroit grew, Chicago grew 1,206 feet; New York, 1089 feet.12

These large physical changes of the built environment initiated cultural pushback, which included practical concerns for access to light and air. Some even went as far as to “[decry] the creation of artificial ‘peaks’ and ‘canyons’ where urban residents were deprived of any contact with nature.”13 Alternatively, others saw skyscrapers as patriotic. To celebrate a skyscraper was to celebrate America’s success, progress, and power as it marched ahead into the modern world. Thus, these tall, monumental buildings were often romanticized and sensationalized—an integral part in the story of America’s industrialization.  

The sensationalizing of skyscrapers and city skylines is due, in part, to their concurrent growth with the popularity of photography as a visual medium. The documentation of these buildings has produced several famous photographs of early skyline construction: most notably, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, an iconic scene with men dangling across a beam that hovers above New York City, and Lewis Hine’s series on the Empire State Building, which captures men working precariously close to edges that seemingly drop off into greyed-out, distance cityscapes. These photos of skyscrapers unveil perspectives of cities that were previously unseen by a majority of people. In some sense, they were surreal for the their time. They played with scale and proportion in ways that were impossible before Major William Le Baron Jenney invented the load-bearing structural frame that could balance buildings beyond ten stories—effectively sending men into the sky all while keeping their feet on the floor.

And while the subjects of Hines’ photos dangled above New York, some six hundred miles away, another city was flexing its newfound wealth and opening the doors to the most recent “striking addition” to its skyline: The Union Guardian Building.14

At the corner of Griswold and Congress, the Detroit’s Guardian Building rises almost 500 feet in the air and descends over 100 feet underground.15 Ornate details line every plane and touch every corner; not an inch of stone appears unconsidered. The front doors that greet visitors on Griswold open above to a large half-dome, lined with intricately patterned and vibrantly colored masonry—a signature of Art Deco style. The colors are inspired by American Indian culture rather than finance, which adds to the building's unique allure. On either side of the entrance, the forms of two figures gradually step out from the building’s flat sides. They are symbolic guards for the financial dealings inside.   

From far in the distance, the Guardian Building is a spike of orange against an otherwise grey landscape. Its size overcasts its immediate surroundings, but even upon its completion in the late 1920s, the Guardian Building had already been surpassed in height by the existing Penobscot Building. Its slim silhouette only added a modest peak to the skyline. However the Guardian Building represented an alternative use of Detroit’s wealth in its skyline: quality and craftsmanship. The “Cathedral of Finance” was built with unique materials that set it apart from other skyscrapers in Detroit.16 The building is 40-stories of steel frames, “sheathed in 1.8 million orange bricks” of a custom shade, named “Guardian.”17 When it was completed, it was the tallest masonry structure in the world.18 Other materials included, among others, Mankato stone, Rookwood pottery, Flint Faience tile, Italian Travertine marble, Belgian black marble, and blood-red Numidian marble. The building’s materials were selected and imported from several different countries and continents; thus, the building stood as a symbol—or perhaps a warning—of the ever increasing globalization embedded in the modern era’s economy.

The decades to follow found Detroit grappling with the very same issues of globalization that the Guardian Building so proudly exhibited.  In 1946, Ford’s Vice President of Manufacturing suggested “some more mechanical handling between these transfer machines. Give us some more of that automatic business. . .”19 By midcentury, Ford introduced automation to their automobile factories. As globalization propelled the U.S. into a service-based economy, even more unskilled labor jobs were lost as manufacturing was exported to less industrialized countries. In her essay “Detroit Arcadia,” Rebecca Solnit describes how the city “shrank the way old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins went dry...”20 As the jobs moved, people moved too. This demographic shift, coupled with high racial tensions, created tumultuous economic and social conditions for the city throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1977, Detroit’s skyline changed again. Relatively prosperous economic conditions in the latter half of the twentieth century prompted excessive growth in cities. Many of the country’s tallest buildings—World Trade Center in New York, Sears Tower in Chicago, Transamerica Tower in San Francisco—were built during this time. However the construction of Detroit’s tallest building, The Renaissance Center, was not the result of prosperity, but rather a consequence of the Detroit’s attempt to revive itself. The postmodern project, designed by John Portman, was “conceived as a facilitator of urban renewal,” intended to “anchor Detroit’s revival.”21 In contrast to the Guardian Building, the RenCen’s mirrored panels and cylindrical shapes tower over the rest of the city and form a clearly pronounced silhouette on Detroit’s skyline. The building also diverges from the Guardian Building in that it embraces a different style of architecture, in which “the opacity of building materials is reduced to zero.”22 In the original plans, large bridges intended to connect the RenCen across Jefferson Ave, making the building “an extension to the city streetscape.”23 However budget cuts determined that the “critical bridges, the residential, and the cultural components were never built” and thus, “the project was not connected to the city.” Instead, the building creates more of a barrier—two-story concrete structures in front of the building appear like walls against the city. The RenCen also lacks integration into the city: visitors can enter through the private parking garage and “never set foot on city streets.”24 Despite its controversy, the building marks the most significant point on the city’s skyline and upon its completion, Detroit shifted. The entire city seemed to be tugged closer to the river and pulled further to the clouds.  

With the construction of the RenCen, Detroit’s skyline reached its present-day state. It is the skyline that you catch a glimpse of if you drive into the city today. And if you keep driving, make a quarter-lap around Belle Isle and stand along the island’s edge, you can see it there as well. And better yet: if you trek over the Ambassador Bridge, spare a few Canadian quarters to a public viewfinder at the river, lean forward, and look—it is the skyline that greets you there, too.

THE IMAGE OF SKYLINES IN COMMERCIAL SPACES

But where else might we find these images? The short answer: almost everywhere.

We see skylines in stores, mostly—they are graphics on t-shirts, on hats, on mugs, on magnets. They are popular souvenirs—the face of postcards, the subject of snowglobes. They are on pens and keychains and other small trinkets we buy in gas stations and gift shops.

We also see them on TV. Skylines flash in the opening sequences of television shows—Friends, Full House, among many others—and help viewers establish a geographic connection with the characters. Establishing shots quickly give the viewers a context for the scenes to follow; they project a sense of reality onto the setting. A quick pan of a skyline claims “city” as the setting, even when we as viewers know the next cut will be to the inside of a set.

And when the show breaks for commercial, we see skylines there, too. As companies attempt to localize their brand and affix them to physical locations, skylines become influential in the marketing of their products. Detroit is not immune to this trend. In recent years, businesses in Detroit have appropriated the city’s labels—dangerous, ruined, and abandoned—and turned them on their heads. Instead, marketers play Detroit as raw, authentic, and real. They embrace the narrative of Detroit as an industrial powerhouse, of Detroit as all grit, metal, and steel. They highlight the city’s sense of independence and spirit, the city’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude. These marketing campaigns have capitalized on a curated image of Detroit that depends on its damaged state. Essential to this narrative is the imagery of Detroit—its skyline in particular.

In February 2011, 11 million people visited a raw, authentic, and real Detroit from their living rooms and local bars. During the Super Bowl, Chrysler aired the first commercial of their marketing campaign, “Imported from Detroit.” The ad is two minutes long and features a collage of the city through desaturated filters, quick cuts, and shaky, handheld pans—all under a deep, rugged voiceover. The car, a Chrysler 200 (driven by rapper and Detroit-native Eminem), receives little screen time. Instead shots of Detroit itself are tossed across the frame. Common elements of the city—people, buildings, street signs—join more notable landmarks—The Spirit of Detroit, “The Fist,” the Fox Theater—to construct Chrysler’s Detroit. A gray, misty skyline looms in the distance as the voiceover claims: “Now, we’re from America, but this isn’t New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.”25 The self-awareness of the city’s hardship is the main theme coursing through the two minute ad. At one point, it asks the viewers directly: “What does this city know about luxury, huh? What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”26 Viewers responded very positively, citing that the commercial gave Detroit “a new image as a comeback city.”27 Despite the ad only showing the skyline of downtown, the “comeback” that viewers spoke of was seemingly applied to the entire city.

In addition to being passive viewers of skylines as they are stamped on our products and projects on our screens, we also seek them out ourselves. We photograph them, draw them, sculpt them, etch them into wood, and even build them virtually in video games. The “skyline” tag on Instagram has 10,534,813 posts.28 The video game Cities: Skylines sold two million copies in its first year.29 Etsy, an online marketplace where people “sell and buy unique goods” has 67,185 products tagged “skyline.”30 Of those 67,185 items on Etsy, almost 900 fall under the “detroit skyline” tag.31 Etsy buyers can purchase a myriad of homemade objects with the image of Detroit’s skyline: a Motown record cut into the silhouette, black and white panoramic wall triptychs, engraved pint glasses, wedding invitations, cutting boards, stickers, pins, among many others.

These handmade, “artisanal” items on Etsy fall into the umbrella category of  “maker culture,” a movement based on a rejection of the “generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise.”32 The maker movement presents a counterargument to mass-production: small-operating, local sellers of handmade goods. Etsy has been influential in the movement, providing a digital marketplace where people around the world are able to buy and sell handmade goods as if they are local. The movement has been credited with “reinventing retail” and “taking over machines again” as it introduces a new model to produce goods.33

And while the items depicting Detroit’s skyline on Etsy give a slightly different portrayal of Detroit than Chrysler’s commercial, the story they tell is just as one-sided: Detroit is on the rise. These items lack the darkness and grittiness that Chrysler’s ad unapologetically embraces, and instead offer a bright, optimistic approach in support of Detroit’s revival.

THE IMAGE OF SKYLINES IN FINE ART

When we see skylines, sometimes we see them outside of the commercial world. We hang them on our walls, in the hallways of our homes—but we hang them in our galleries and museums, too. Skylines are mostly seen in photographs. The medium has been linked to skyscrapers since its invention, as both are interconnected through their concurrent ties to machinery and modernity. Early photos of skylines highlight this connection—but they also demonstrate how photography filled the gap (and blurred the lines) between documentation and fine art. In 1927, Charles Sheeler photographed Ford’s River Rouge Factory; his photo Criss Cross Conveyors demonstrates a high level of control and strategic framing—almost to a point of abstraction. Dearborn’s sky becomes the host for an intricate web of lines and angles rather than machines. In contrast, a photo taken a year later of the Guardian Building’s construction lacks any control, any strategic framing, or even any title—it is purely documentation.

More recent photography of Detroit centers around its buildings, too. Photographer Jon DeBoer has several series of photos on Detroit—all focused on Detroit’s architecture. However, unlike Sheeler, DeBoer’s photos are not strict compositions of line and shape—present in them are subtle stories and distinct moods. In DeBoer’s nighttime shot, Electric, Detroit is staged as a dystopian future. A bold lightning strike collides with—or is emitted from—a cluster of buildings. Circular shapes repeat throughout the frame: in the windows, in the tunnel, and in the orb-like lights that float as a trail across the scene. To the right, a street sign lays dismantled on the side of the road. To the left, dark shadows carve their angular shapes across the ground. The only indication of human presence is the random scatter of lights in windows of buildings that make up the background. DeBoer’s skyline does not give us the same Detroit we see from Chrysler or from Etsy. Overall, DeBoer’s Detroit is alien—haunting, even. Thus, the imagery of skyline allows for another version of Detroit.

Similar aesthetics are conveyed in other photographers’ work in the city. Detroit has been a put on the map again, this time as the subject of photography dubbed “ruin photography” or “ruin porn.” Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre’s photos in Ruins of Detroit channel a similar energy to Deboer, however their color photographs invoke a different sensory experience. They capture the cracking, the peeling, and the breaking of the city in a soft palette of decay—muted greys, browns, and oranges—more reminiscent of the Roman Forum than a twenty-first century metropolis. Camilo José Vergara also photographed Detroit, but his work is less exploitive by its nature; he explores Detroit as one of many cities across the country in a larger focus on urban decay. One of his photograph series involves time—therefore, he remains objective to his subjects as he documents their change over the course of several years.34

THE IMPACT OF SKYLINE IMAGERY

The venues that host images of skylines in the commercial world—stores, television shows, commercials, online markets—utilize skylines as a tool to portray their own contrived Detroit ethos. In advertising, the commonly produced ethos largely centers around Detroit’s “comeback story”—a story that pushes Detroit back into an idealized American Dream state, where the only direction to go is up.35 This way of using skylines to “brand” the city of Detroit is troublesome for the city in several ways.

The first and most obvious way: using a skyline to represent Detroit and reduce it to a two-dimensional image oversimplifies the city. The Detroit that exists outside the downtown area—some 300,000 homes, some 700,000 people—is physically excluded from the image of the skyline that we see plastered on products and projected on screens.36 What happens on the street level is also excluded as skyline imagery, by its nature, inherently favors what happens at the twentieth story over what happens at ground floor.

The second: images of Detroit’s skyline that symbolize the city’s entirety also, in turn, romanticize Detroit’s struggles and failures and situate them as marketable qualities. Chrysler’s commercial flashes Detroit’s abandoned factories as the voiceover claims: “it’s hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”37 However, Chrysler’s ad brushes over the gruesome details of these “hot fires,” and neglects to mention the specific problems Detroiters have faced: workplace discrimination, redlining, mass population loss, high unemployment, foreclosures, corruption—even those that literally involve “hot fires,” such as arson, river pollution, and the 1967 riot.

A third problem: much of this branding and storytelling is done by outsiders. The authors and creators of these narratives are not Detroiters themselves, but rather, those who seek to appropriate Detroit’s image in order to tap into a consumer trend that favors originality, character, and authenticity over mass-production. This scripted, framed Detroit is louder and more visible, therefore drowning out the voices of native Detroiters. Its financial backing allows it to reach broader audiences, too; for example, Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad cost them 3.5 million dollars per 30 seconds and reached 11 million people.38 Outsiders telling a story of places that are not theirs raises ethical questions—a point brought up by Linda Martín Alcoff in her essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Alcoff argues that “who is speaking to whom turns out to be as important for meaning and truth as what is said; in fact what is said turns out to change according to who is speaking and who is listening.”39 In the case of Detroit, the story of struggle that still surrounds many neighborhoods is obscured by the resounding noise of the downtown’s resurgence—even despite the fact that most of the workforce employed in the downtown are outsiders themselves who commute into the city.40

The same problems exist even when skylines are elevated to hosts associated with fine art, such as the photographs discussed earlier. Galleries and museums display, and therefore create, a specific Detroit that suits their needs, too. The Detroit found in galleries and museums—the Detroit that has been framed, first in the photographer’s viewfinder, and then, in thick, glossy frames hung on white walls—tells a curated story of Detroit that depends on its ruined state. These images still exclude much of the city: most notably, its people. Criticism of ruin photography points to the “invisibility” of Detroit’s population in these photographs, stating that this invisibility “is directly related to their invisibility in policy circles and urban revitalization.”41

But to the general public, photographs of functioning, active households are simply not as interesting as abandoned, dilapidated ones—a contradiction which Susan Sontag’s book On Photography discusses. Sontag claims that “all photographs are memento mori,” and that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”42 Therefore, photographs of abandoned buildings are captivating because they so plainly engage with the imminence of mortality and the inevitability of time, which are both frightening and intriguing. Because these images are “touched by pathos,” these photos of Detroit allow viewers to feel and experience a longing for the past—a nostalgia—that is not theirs. 43 And this nostalgia likely does not belong to the photographers, either. The majority of these ruin photographers are outsiders: Deboer is from Royal Oak, Vergara is from New York, and both Marchand and Meffre are from France.44   

In short: the appropriation of skylines in commercials, in handmade items, in photographs—in any context—displays many versions of the same city. The problem lies, then, with the fact that these stories are not complete. And maybe it is not the job of a two minute Chrysler ad to acknowledge decades of discrimination in the city of Detroit; or the job of a item listing on Etsy to talk about redlining; or the job of a photograph in a museum to recount Detroit’s entire story. But when a curated, contrived, selective story uses images of the skyline to present itself as the city, these stories then become the city’s story. The people, places, and things, that exist outside these images are excluded. And thus, these images—in whatever context we find them—enable viewers to forget what exists outside the downtown areas, beneath the Renaissance Center, behind the Guardian Building, and beyond the abandoned factories.

NOTES

1. United States. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, The Detroit River, Michigan: An Ecological Profile. 85 (7.17), by Bruce A. Manny and Thomas A. Edsall, 1988.

2. "sky-line, n," OED Online, December 2016, Oxford University Press

3. Ibid

4. Larry R. Ford, "Reading the Skylines of American Cities," Geographical Review 82, no. 2 (1992): 180-200,

5. Ibid, 181.

6. Ibid, 182.

7. Larry R. Ford, "Reading the Skylines of American Cities, (1992).

8. Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

9. Ibid, xxxvi.

10. “Skyscraper Page Database: Detroit,” Skyscraper Page.

11. Ibid. 

12. Ibid. 

13. Larry R Ford, "Reading the Skylines of American Cities,” (1992).

14. United States. National Park Service, "Guardian Building," National Parks Service.

15. Dan Austin, "Guardian Building," Historic Detroit.

16. Rebecca Golden, "Iconic Detroit Building of the Week: The Guardian Building," Curbed Detroit, September 18, 2015. 

17. Dan Austin, "Guardian Building," Historic Detroit.

18. Ibid.

19. Anderson Ashburn, "Detroit Automation," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 340, (March 1962): 21-28.

20. Rebecca Solnit, "Detroit Arcadia," Harper's Magazine, July 2007. 

21. Michael D. LaFaive, “Renaissance Center Brought No Renaissance,” Mackinac Center for Public Policy, March 5, 2005.

22. Neil Leach, Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (Psychology Press, 1997), 338.

23. Mark Kurlyandchik, “GM Renaissance Center Celebrates 35 Years,” Hour Detroit, March 29, 2012.

24. Ibid.

25. Chrysler, "Chrysler Eminem Super Bowl Commercial – Imported from Detroit," advertisement, Youtube, February 5, 2011.

26. Ibid.

27. Jeff Karoub and Mike Householder, "Chrysler Ad Has People Talking about Detroit," NBC News, February 2, 2011.

28. “Search: Skylines,” Instagram. 

29. Stephany Nunnely, “Cities: Skylines Has Sold Over 2M Copies, 76,000 Pieces of Mod Content Created.” VG247, March 10, 2016. 

30. “Search: Skylines,” Etsy. 

31. “Search: Detroit Skylines,” Etsy.

32. Tim Bajarin, "Why the Maker Movement Is Important to America's Future," Time Magazine, May 19, 2014.

33. Adrienne Burke, "How the Maker Movement Is Reinventing Retail," Forbes, September 25, 2013.

34. “Tracking Time,” Camilo José Vergara.

35. Jeff Karoub and Mike Householder, "Chrysler Ad Has People Talking about Detroit," February 2, 2011.

36. “Detroit Michigan,” United States Census Bureau. 

37. Chrysler, "Chrysler Eminem Super Bowl Commercial – Imported from Detroit," advertisement. Youtube, February 5, 2011. 

38. "Historical Super Bowl Viewership," The Nielsen Company, 2016.

39. Linda Martín Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University, 1992).

40. Martin Lavelle and Emmanuel Ogbonna, "Comparing Detroit’s Commuting Patterns with Other Cities’," Michigan Economy, December 4, 2013. 

41. Sean Posey, “What Separates Ruin Porn from Important Documentary Photography?” Rustwire, June 12, 2011. 

42. Susan Sontag, On Photography (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973), 2005. 

43. Ibid, 11. 

44. “Tracking Time,” Camilo José Vergara.

45. “Jon DeBour Photography,” accessed December 14, 2016, http://jondeboer.com/.

“Ruins of Detroit,” Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, accessed December 14, 2016, http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit

The Language of Sounds

The checkout lanes at Target are always loud. I dread them. Every time my walkie emits that flurry of static, followed by those words: “who is available for backup?” I sigh. 

“I can come up,” I throw back through the walkie. I abandon the table of sweaters I was folding. My white sneakers glide silently across the red speckled tiles as I ascend toward the front of the store. Toward the lanes. Toward the noise.

It is loud from the influx of people chatting, grabbing carts, hanging around. The volume increases from the woosh of the doors that suction together in sync to the rhythm of guests petering in and out. More noise emits from the machines themselves—whirling conveyor belts, clattering keys, and a thick layer of beeps and erps. I find a lane to open then I, too, join in—the clattering of my keys meshes into the procession. Click, clack, click.

“I can help who’s next!” I call to no one in particular.

A guest rolls their cart up to the lane (squeak!), mumbles some form of “hello,” and hands me their first item. I wave it over the scanner.

And then: Beep!

A staccato, satisfying beep resounds. It is moderately low in pitch, but quick to the attack. I continue scanning, the sound as my guide. Beep! Muscle memory takes over. Grab the item. Over the scanner. A red flash. Beep!

Again. Beep!

Again. Beep!

Again. Beep!

And after the guest has paid, a new sound emits from the card reader: a quick double low gurgle, bwamp-bwamp! It is extremely unpleasant. If translated to English, surely the sound would mean “error,” or “danger,” or “cannot compute.” Every guest that hears this noise looks down in alarm. Their expressions are frantic. Has something gone wrong? Has my card not been accepted? Their eyes narrow on the source of the sound. In big, blinking letters, the screen reads: PLEASE REMOVE CARD. The guest yanks their card out with unnecessary force. (I suspect as spiteful payback for their confusion.)

The response that people have to the bwamp-bwamp!—the wide-eyed glare, the tiny jump back —is not a reaction of surprise to the emission of a sound, but rather, to this sound’s specific quality. The guttural texture, the low pitch, the quick repetition—everything about this little bwamp-bwamp! is wrong for the event it indicates.

Ultimately the bwamp-bwamp! does accomplish its goal. For the most part, guests do eventually remove their cards from the card reader (occasionally prompted by an “Oh, actually Sir, you can take your card out now”), grab their bags, and trudge their cart away. However the level of dissonance is highly unnecessary. A different sound, one that was more coherent with the action, would certainly omit this strange moment of confusion that I encounter with every transaction. However, despite my complaints, I do not desire for the bwamp-bwamp! to be changed. This short moment at the card reader intrigues me. It causes me to pause.

I have uncovered two main reasons for my intrigue—a) because in its wrongness, in its dissonance, the design of the bwamp-bwamp! sound is suddenly revealed to us. We are able to see it so plainly; it becomes distinctively noticeable. And b) every guest that rolls through the lanes at Target has nearly an identical reaction—every guest comes to a full stop. The bwamp-bwamp! receives a collective, universal response.

(Fueti). 

(Fueti). 

 

This special case of the bwamp-bwamp! stands out to me, specifically because in the digital age, sounds that correspond to actions are entirely commonplace. This was not always the case. In the 1920s, when NBC added three chimes (boum, biiing, binnn) to the beginning of their broadcast, the idea of a sound relating to an action was somewhat cutting edge (Mars). Other sounds over the past century have proved iconic; however, by the year 2017, sounds have become more far more numerous, and in turn, far less specific. (Trademarked sounds are difficult to approve; only about one hundred trademarked sounds exist.) I hear these generic types of sounds—these beeps, these rings, these bloops all the time. Undoubtedly, these sounds are further ingrained into my daily life the more I use digital devices. Not unlike Target’s card reader, these sounds are used to convey specific information—they mark events, actions, and processes. A text message arrives with a zzzz. An email sends with a blurup. Transaction accepted. Press one for more options. Download complete. Breaking news. Door ajar. Bing. Eerup. Booboop. Dunnn-dun. Iiiinng-iing.

In my art practice, I explore these types of artificial response sounds, along with sounds associated with artifice in general, such as mechanized sounds (e.g., machines, generators, computers). I create compositions of both sound and images. In some works, the images are more straightforward: machines, metal textures, repetitive linear patterns. In others, I opt for less literal imagery: abstract and weird, untraceable scenes. 

My process starts with the creation of a sound and image inventory that I can pull from when I enter the construction phase. And so, equipped with my Zoom H4n recorder, a stash of memory cards, and a pair of big, over-ear headphones, I head out. I look to gather a range of sounds that I know will work well in the layered setting that most of my work inhabits. A variety of qualities in the sounds appeal to me; I record some low, some high, some in between. Some rumbling, static sounds. Some high, vibrating sounds. I pay attention to the different rhythms that feed through my headphones. I want some steady. I want some erratic. My favorite sounds are seemingly untraceable—they are so odd, so unconnected to an object that even I eventually will forget what they are or where they came from. My radiator makes one of these sounds; it is wonderful—a spluttering, hissing sound that clicks and clacks and rrrrrrs and sounds both natural and mechanical at the same time. It begs the question: “what is that?” and furthermore, “what does it mean?”

My intention within the work often lacks any outright conclusion or meaning. I combine the sounds and images I gather in an interesting, sometimes unexpected way, and it is this combination that becomes the meaning. Rather, the very act of the combination is what the work is about. The process—the layering—is the most vital part. I showcase the medium in my work; these pieces must be sound and video. They are presented to the viewer, and then experimented upon. I twist and bend. I distort and damage. In the end, the product reflects an experience only possible with video and sound.

Often, I will assign an image or set of images a sound and repeat it throughout the piece. The combinations may or may not be coherent. I find a theme in the batch of my recordings and let that determine the piece’s direction. In switch, the siding of a building always appears on screen with the sharp sound of my index finger tugging down a strip of vertical blinds. (Click clickclick clickclickclickclick.) The building chugs past you like a conveyor belt. 

In another piece, one by five, the images are projected onto concrete blocks stacked five high, spaced by wooden slats. The sound that accompanies this piece, which can be summarized as low zzzzzzs and errrrrrrs, mixes with distant, far-off voices—a sound bite of JFK’s space exploration stump speech, a modulated countdown, a faint voice speaking “Houston to Discovery,” among a few others. Periodically, a sharp, loud, jittering sound—bitittiti—disrupts the piece and highlights the fragmentation of the sounds. The piece in its entirety, with the overlaps and collisions of sound, emulates a machine whirring to life as it tests its functions and stretches its capabilities. Within the duration, some of the five “monitors” cut out. Their images are reduced to static—taking their sounds, the zzzzzzs and errrrrrrs, with them.

In speaking and writing about my work, I always found it hard to explain what these sounds mean, why I chose them, or what they add to the meaning of my pieces. I was unable to communicate anything more than that these sounds added interest, added tension, added complexity and layers. The sounds were nothing more than abstractions and testaments to my editing abilities. In my misunderstanding (and modest downplay) of my own intentions, I defaulted to a standard, easy answer: these sounds provided interesting textures—they were a supplementary soundtrack to correspond to the visual experience, which I believed was the main focus of the piece. In short, I claimed these sounds were meaningless under the guise of their abstractness.

However, that explanation is too simple. I find, now, in retrospect, that I can easily disprove it: to group all of those sounds as “abstract” and “textural” is to directly contradict the way that the sounds reference specific events, actions, and processes. The sounds are innately references; they trigger memories, experiences, and reactions that are entirely concrete. A phone ringing, a light switch clicking, a dial tone. When I hear those sounds, it conjures up an image of its action. It conjures that sensation; the sound becomes tangible in this way. I can feel the plastic phone against my face. I know the amount of resistance a light switch gives as my fingers push it down.

When we hear these sounds—these beeps, these rings, these bloops—they tell us something. And when these sounds tell us something, we not only hear it, but we understand it. The sounds partially depend on our awareness of our surroundings and on our brain’s abilities to make inferences and associations in order to communicate their meaning. But there’s also something independent at work here—a learned behavior, a language that we have picked up on over the years of interacting with machines, computers, and other technologies. Artificial sounds—the whole lot of them, the bings, eerups, booboops, dunnn-duns, iiiinng-iings, even the bwamp-bwamp!s—are words from a language, specifically designed to tell us something about what has just happened, what is about to happen, or what should happen next.

The more I think about Target, the more I think about that tiny bwamp-bwamp! that tacks on an extra twenty seconds to each transaction, the more I think that maybe that is why I use digital sounds. I use the bings, eerups, and booboops to tap into this language of the digital age and communicate something unspoken, something that does not have a direct translation. As a general rule, we’ve moved beyond using actual language as sound—AOL’s alert sound from the early 2000s, “You’ve got mail!” seems archaic to us now. It is too long. Too complicated. A simple beep now substitutes those words. In essence, sounds have become shorthand for the information we need to convey or receive.

Evidence of this conclusion is found in switch; as the images slide into place, there is a click. They blur out. Click. They refocus. Click. The actions on screen have a satisfying sound in response. These sounds are not just textural additions; these clicks have very specific associations. In this piece, they represent the sound of the ON/OFF function. They stand in for different settings, different gears. Clicks mean something is changing. The short rectangle masks of images flicker across the screen to the sound of click click click click.

Before I fully recognized this language, I used to categorize my work as collage. To me, this categorization carried a negative, trivial connotation—my pieces were somehow only spontaneous and only disjointed and only abstract. However when I consider the sounds I use as a language and as a specific meaning—then, the opposite becomes true. These pieces exhibit not spontaneity, but instead, a heightened sense of control. Spontaneity would include raw recordings, serendipitous happenings; in contrast, I select these sounds. I choose them. I clip, modulate, and mix them. I determine the order. The pace. The timing. The rhythm. And in turn, I am not composing the accompaniment, but rather, writing the transcript to correspond to the visual.

However, my pieces are not about what exactly this transcript might say—just that it says something at all. My work proves that there is language inherent in sound, and more than that—we are able to understand it. All of the resolution and tension within my work lies in the connect and disconnect between the sound and its corresponding imagery. In essence, I am utilizing the bwamp-bwamp! effect—the tension arises when the correspondence fails. Like the bwamp-bwamp!, the power of sound—the language of sound—is suddenly revealed to the viewer in its wrongness, in its dissonance. My work highlights that we only recognize our fluency in the language of sound when it fails us.

 

 

Notes

Fueti, Norm. “Chip Readers.” Retail. 2016

Mars, Roman. “NBC Chimes: Behind the Scenes with the First Trademarked Sound.” 99% Invisible. 2016.