Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on May 30, 2010



Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on May 30, 2010

Woodward Avenue – pictures

Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on May 30, 2010


Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on May 24, 2010

An article by Mark Stryker regarding the exhibition ‘Woodward Avenue’:

‘Contemporary art museum exhibit uses plants to tell Detroit’s story’


Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on May 17, 2010

My first experiences in Detroit were deeply marked by my travels along Woodward Avenue, the road is central to the city’s transportation system and the obligated passage—outside of freeways– to the northern suburbs.

What is striking about the avenue, is its insistent linearity, its egotistical width that highlights the importance of car over person but also it’s symbolic status as both an outmoded model of modernization and as the potential nucleus (with proposed alterations) of nascent efforts of renewal of the city.

Woodward, as everyone calls it in Detroit, is today also a major American thoroughfare with a double-life, one that is lived in two cities, one poorer, in the brink of collapse and in a state of rural-urbanism but still unique and striking, and the other, located above Eight Mile Road, wealthier, busier and although clearly more developed and manicured, a more generic and even unremarkable example of suburban life in the heartland.

The aging city formerly known as the “Paris of the Midwest” was the concentrated site of profound innovation, wealth and transformation, one so powerful in fact, that it changed the world with its inventions and new business models. Henry Ford’s adoption of the assembly line, not only helped to expedite the manufacturing of automobiles but also managed to influence all modern processes of production.

Detroit was from the beginning of the twentieth century and until the nineteen fifties a major player in national and international affairs, a business center, but also an architectural and art capital in the United States. The skyscrapers, factories and art institutions of that era are a testament of that wealth, their sheer size and majestic presence still speaks with melancholy of an implicit belief that modernization was unequivocally linear and more importantly an unstoppable process.

Woodward in its downtown portion was at that time a thriving shopping center, an equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue and most definitely the Grande Dame of Detroit’s avenues, graced on both sides with important buildings and institutions, so worthy of note in fact, that it was often immortalized in postcards like the one pictured below found by Dr. Lorry Swerts—a friend of Jef Geys, collaborator  and guest of our project—in his Grandmother’s albums.

But success and power or better yet, force, are a double edged sword, at best they generate increased responsibility and harmonious growth and at worst abuse of power and autocracy. The Fordian ethos was not only a business model but also a social experiment, one that had specific rules, created unthinkable individual wealth—at all levels— and that when combined with diverse social and political forces contributed to engender challenges and social strife that changed the city forever.

In the last four decades, Detroit was practically abandoned and forgotten, becoming an island where modernization and growth almost literally stopped and where jump starts to bring the city back often ended in nothing. These changes have resulted in an increasing shrinkage of its population, a profusion of survival strategies borne out of necessity and the spontaneous occurrence of many creative initiatives that lie in the interstices of legality and illegality.

The Detroit we see now is still beautiful, weirdly innovative and very resilient, what some see as a failure is in fact another stage of development, a new frontier where models are de facto being revised and where an apparent end—based on old narratives—is perhaps a new beginning, one that is still being shaped.

When I met Jef Geys for the first time at his home in Balen, I had the first taste of his work process. In art, we often speak of process as a set of purely conceptual or material concerns that are removed from life, rationalized and operated to alter reality. Geys process is conceptual, in part, but real, very real and organic, it’s based on social interactions, trust, collaboration, mentoring and respect for other disciplines.

We spent the first hour of my visit seeing his garden, his home, meeting his wife and talking, simply talking, an artist exercising his right to choose a project, a site of intervention and a potential partnership. At an undetermined point, he invited me to his studio and there suddenly Woodward Avenue appeared in Balen, carefully studied, mapped and caringly dissected. Geys asked me questions about specific intersections that I had never even seen, let alone visited.

With the aid of technology he has visited these sites time and time again, studied them, selected them and figured out a plan for a project that was from the onset both clear in the extreme and also open to chance.

Woodward Avenue is both an expansion and a departure from his Quadra Medicinale project, the interdisciplinary exhibition that he presented at the Belgian Pavillion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Both Quadra Medicinale and Woodward Avenue have as their origin the term ‘terroir’, one that suggests a biological community or habitat rather than a territory or geographical location, and at their core the artist’s ongoing interest in simple and often overlooked phenomena.

The project in Venice focused on the cities of Villeurbanne, New York, Moscow and Brussels, where friends of the artist—at his request—collected samples of twelve wild plants found within a one square kilometer radius (0.386 square miles) around the area of their location within those cities. This collection of plants resulted in an unexpected scientific inventory of ordinary and often overlooked weeds that grow under similar conditions in the margins of cities around the world and that unbeknownst to us are often edible, medicinal and even poisonous.

For the Detroit, Geys changed the methodology and asked Dr. Ina Vandebroek, a scientist and a contributor for the New York section of Quadra Medicinale, to collect weeds at twelve intersections along Woodward Avenue beginning at Cadillac Square, in the heart of the city, and ending at Saginaw Street, nearly 30 miles north in the neighboring city of Pontiac. It is significant that the delineated straight-line course crossed Eight Mile Road, the invisible but tangible border that separates the largely unpopulated downtown, lush with wild plants, from the densely populated and well kept suburbs.

Woodward Avenue includes the dried plant specimens collected at those twelve intersections with their corresponding scientific descriptions, photographs of the street signs and plants in their original state, as well as the google maps (as captured images and assembled collages) that the artist used to locate them.

The exhibition also features two new films that record an ethnobotany workshop with traditional health practitioners run by Dr. Vandebroek in Bolivia. The raw footage was  edited to the artist’s precise specifications, the videos are shown facing each other, essentially telling the same story in a short and long format.

These films not only link the project to yet another city—this time through the moving image—but also make unexpected connections to largely invisible groups of people–local healers and patients–that also use plants productively and that live and work in the shadows.

Woodward Avenue is a multi layered project that continues Jef Geys’ fascination with documentation, science, technology, human relations and community engagement. It also faithfully encapsulates his persistent and questioning interest in the discrete but crucial role that art plays as a vehicle to obliquely highlight and address larger social issues, those precisely that most people would overlook or would like to ignore ignore.

This special edition of the Kempens Informatieblad (Kempens Information Journal) accompanies the exhibition, as well as other public programs and specialized scientific workshops that are an integral part of this art project.

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Woodward Avenue -text by Lorry Swerts – Detroit

Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on April 28, 2010

Dear ladies and gentlemen

I am pleased to be here and to introduce you to the work of my friend, Jef Geys. Jef and I are quite different – he’s an artist, I’m a physician. In spite of that, we are both intrigued by the secrets of what we call life and are both eager to find ways to improve life, each within our own discipline.

Jef’s concern about life and about what is profoundly human is reflected in the art he creates. His art counts as a kind though urgent invitation not only to look at it from a certain distance, but to really participate in it. By his art Jef invites the spectator to look for answers to the question of how to improve life.

For the Biennale in Venice last year Jef presented an entirely new project, entitled the “Quadra Medicinale”. The Quadra Medicinale was, first of all, the story of the abundance of plants that grow in the streets of large cities. Although these plants are often called ‘weeds’, many of them are very edible or even medicinal. In addition, Quadra Medicinale was also the expression of Jef’s commitment about the various social issues facing today’s cities.

In the Woodward Avenue project, which is a variant of “Quadra Medicinale”, Jef incorporates an even broader range of scientific disciplines into his art. For this project, he asked Ina Vandebroek, an ethnomedical research specialist, to present a film and a workshop about traditional healers in the Amazon region of Bolivia.  For Jef the continuation of the dialogue between physicians and traditional healers is important to develop healthcare that is both effective and culturally acceptable.

Jef has his own aesthetic methods, I have mine. We respect one another and we work together, whenever possible.

thank you for your attention

Lorry Swerts


Posted in Woodward Avenue by gijs van doorn on February 23, 2010

Hi Ina,

I understand that you do not want ‘new age hippies’. I have spoken
with an eccentric African-American Herbalist/Spiritualist who I think would work well for your  needs and I have spoken very briefly with an Mexican woman who runs a shop in the city. I need to know, would you like them to partake in a panel discussion or a more “hands-on” workshop. Would they be speaking in front of a crowd or would they be dealing with people one-on-one.
I am not so well versed on the exhibition so I am not certain what the “Bolivia films” are.


Hi Ben,

I would like to hold a private workshop, which means (hopefully at least 4) healers and myself. The idea is to exchange experiences related to traditional healing. Jef, correct me if I am wrong, but I see this as a workshop “by invitation only”, not open to the general public. The idea would be to have a small group of people (none of them new-age hippies) and all people working as healers in the community, or perhaps also some community members who are (or have been) patients of these healers, to hold a discussion about the role and importance of traditional healing today in Detroit.

The reason why I want to keep the workshop “private” is three-fold: (1) this is not a promotional stunt (I don’t want press hanging around and scare people); (2) if the event is open it might not create an atmosphere open enough to talk about traditional healing and community health. (I would like to point again to the NYTimes article that emphasized that a lot of healers are “working in the shadows”). Let’s not forget that many healers in urban areas assist community members without legal status. I want the healers to feel safe to talk; (3) popular action series on TV such as “CSI” recently depicted a botánica shop as “a place of witchcraft”. This shows that there still exists a lot of prejudice towards traditional healing.

The Bolivia movies that will be on display in the Detroit exhibition are about my work with traditional healers in the Amazon region in Bolivia. I will be moderating the workshops and would like to start by showing these movies and explaining my work (which is focused on improving community health and training medical students and doctors to become more culturally sensitive) and then ask the healers to talk about their own practice. Ideally, if we have at least 4 healers and some community members/patients, there could be some kind of discussion among them.

What do you think?

Kind wishes,