Making Sounds & Spreading Truth with Kate Levy of Detroit Homeland Security

May 16, 2015 Artists, Interview

Interview with Kate Levy for Detroit Homeland Security

Who is Detroit Homeland Security? What is the mission and what do you do?

Detroit Homeland Security is myself, Kate Levy, Bryce Anderson Small, otherwise known as Bryce Detroit from Detroit recordings and Shann Merola who works with the National Lawyers’ Guild and is a phenomenal photo-based artist. So we all straddle different fields. I’m a documentarian and conceptual artist, I use documentary conceptually. Shanna is similar but she’s more conceptual and more overtly political. She, for example, will take political posters and turn them into a conceptual art piece; I’ll document something and make a documentary film and do a ton of research on all of the ins and outs of policy. Bryce is probably the least political, but the most evolved in the sense that he is the musician literally and metaphorically. He is a hip-hop producer, hip-hop promoter and hip-hop artist himself. Our group was sort of founded on the notion that we want to find the balance between (and they may say something else because we have these long rambling conversations) — but we were founded on the premise of being able to look at history and being able to look forward at the same time. It’s like I’m always delving into history and the history of the structural reasons why something is, Shanna is looking at how things are manifesting in the present and Bryce is always thinking about the most innovative ways to overcome structural oppression from a real fresh point of view.

We got together with the intention of bringing our three strengths together and working in an artistic process that none of our other modes of working allows. Shanna’s teaching all the time, I’m doing a lot of documentary video that doesn’t include conceptual art right now and Bryce is producing other people’s music and producing all sorts of other events like the one mile project. The great thing about our project is that we’ll just get together and freestyle. We’ll get together and try to convene on some of the things we’re interested in exploring thematically and figure out ways that our ways of working fit together. Our ways of working totally clash. That’s I think fruitful. We’re going through and Shanna and I are like ‘let’s go into that abandoned hospital and look for medical records and collage them with people with gas injuries’ ‘Let’s talk about present injuries and juxtapose that with historical injuries that the working class sustain when they’re not unionized’ ‘Let’s make something really political’ and Bryce is like ‘Man, this is some white girl shit, I don’t want to go into this building because I don’t need the remnants of this ruin to know that it’s there’. That’s just an example of how in my Detroit Homeland Security Lettersmind Bryce is forward-thinking. I’ll be like ‘Bryce, let’s go onto the street and ask people to read these letters’ and Bryce is like ‘I just want to talk with them, I can see myself not liking if somebody asked me to be part of this conceptual experiment’. It’s those types of conversations we have that are the meat of our collaboration.

Understanding the limits and boundaries and the overflow between making art and political statements. Art for art’s sake or art for a higher purpose, making something intention based or making something that’s a lived experience—when our context fits a certain form.

What will you be doing for Porous Borders?

For PB, we have decided to focus on the border as a construction, as something that is something maybe more relevant as a metaphorical border. We’re looking at the passage of time within different communities in the Hamtramck area. We’re looking at the seemingly nonexistent actual border. What we’ve decided to do is to focus on the space where the border is not visible, which is in the Poletown plant.

We found these letters in the Ken Cockrel archive which are asking people, councilman Cockrel to vote against the Poletown project in 1980 because these people don’t want to move, don’t want to leave their homes. So Shanna sees, as a present-thinker, these letter as indicative of what’s happening today. There’s some poignancy about senior citizens saying ‘Please don’t kick me out of my home’ in Detroit. But they’re old Polish women, so connecting on the fact that elderly African-American people are losing their homes now and in the 80’s it was this one group of elderly women and families who lost their homes. Bryce and I went around and did interviews asking people to read the letters and how they relate to it today — so that’s a video projection.

A big part of that is the illusion of cultural differences when you’re living in a system that is class-oppressive, so Bryce has made this soundtrack for that, where he’s sampling Polish folk music and Bengali music and hip-hop, sort of making this mosaic of sounds. Shanna is wheat-pasting these letters on the windows of the hospital the morning of and we’re having conversations. That is what we’re doing for PB.

In approaching the border between Hamtramck and Detroit, what have some of your lived experiences been?

I definitely don’t know when I’m in Hamtramck and in Detroit. When I was doing these interviews or sort of interactions with people based on these letters two days ago, I was right on the I-75 service drive to the east, just south of Carpenter and I was like, ‘Wait, am I in Hamtramck or Detroit?’. I wasn’t sure and the demographic of people didn’t tell me where I was. The other thing is that I’m interested in thinking about things structurally so it’s very hard for me to just go up to somebody and say ‘tell me about your experience. I want to know where I’m positioning people before I have a long conversation with them and see how they’re implicated in a larger system that I’m trying to piece together at the same time.

“So when Bryce and I asked about questions of feeling that Detroit gets the short end of the stick or Hamtramck gets engulfed by Detroit, or are you afraid to go to Detroit, nobody would answer in a way that backed up what I would expect. Everybody was like, yeah, we’re fine, we’re happy.”

So when Bryce and I asked about questions of feeling that Detroit gets the short end of the stick or Hamtramck gets engulfed by Detroit, or are you afraid to go to Detroit, nobody would answer in a way that backed up what I would expect. Everybody was like, yeah, we’re fine, we’re happy. So I was like, how do I put this in this context of oppression and subjugation and fighting, that I’m so used to living in Detroit. I can’t experience the conversations that I’ve had on the border as having a specific worldview.

Looking into the future, what would you suggest as a way to build dialogue across borders, and/or to attempt to further dissolve them?

It really depends on the border. I don’t think you can have just one paradigm for how to have a dialogue across borders. The dialogue across the Detroit-Grosse Pointe border needs to be much different than the Detroit-Hamtramck or the Detroit-Highland Park or the Detroit-Ferndale or the Detroit-Oak Park, Dearborn, Boynton-Melvindale. There are a lot of borders in this city and in this region because we live in a highly segregated region.

The conversation I think that is effective to have with young affluent white people to all about racial-class differences is completely different than the conversation that needs to happen with individuals or communities… say I’m trying to convince people in the suburbs that a water affordability plan is necessary for the region, I would say, hey it’s really good for business, it’s actually going to raise our revenue. If I’m talking to a group of white working class people, I would say that water-affordability doesn’t affect African-American people only, you’re next. It’s important to acknowledge or try to learn about the place where people are coming from as much as possible while talking across borders.

– Interview by Levon Kafafian