Riding with Aunt DDot: An Interview with Detroit Artist Bree Gant – Michigan Quarterly Review

Riding with Aunt DDot: An Interview with Detroit Artist Bree Gant

I first met Detroit-born visual artist and documentary photographer Bree Gant in person at a music studio in Corktown, just outside Downtown Detroit, but I’d been following her work on Twitter and Instagram for some time. Gant’s social media accounts are a catalog of vibrant digital collages bridging Warhol-style pop art and afrofuturism, magazine-quality fashion photography, and arrestingly intimate portraits of herself, friends, and other Detroit artists. However, while there are many gripping examples of her work to be found online, I’ve consistently found myself lingering on a set of documentary photographs depicting characters and scenes from Detroit’s public bus system.

Gant’s documentary work is part of an ongoing project whose title, “Riding with Aunt DDot,” aptly distills a feeling of familial warmth pervading the images of bus stops and riders — a positive regard from afar that’s not quite maternal, but something like it. That warmth is infectious. As you study the photographs it’s hard to avoid developing a feeling of attachment and affection for each person in the frame.

Bree Gant. From the series Riding with Aunt DDot.

I recently spoke with Gant over the phone to discuss the “Riding with Aunt DDot” project. Our conversation covered the origins of the project, plans for the future, and Gant’s experiences with public transit activism and issues that have arisen from her documentary work.

To begin, could you discuss how the “Aunt DDot” project began?

The project “Riding With Aunt DDot” started with me as a way to cope when I moved back from undergrad to Detroit. I went to school in DC and they had an amazing public transit system. I used the bus sometimes when I was in school, but I wasn’t really dependent on public transit until I was back in Detroit. And it was just ridiculous! I couldn’t get anywhere, I couldn’t get to interviews. But I did always have my camera with me, and I found that that was a good way to cope.

There’s a piece in Art21 Magazine discussing your work alongside work by Scott Hocking, and that piece mentions a film element to the project?

After I started documenting and sharing those photos, I applied for the Detroit Narrative Agency Fellowship — they’re a new organization, and they provide grants to moving image projects that shift narratives about Detroit. Part of their fellowship is to support producing high-quality projects that also intentionally have a community impact plan along with them and to help develop that plan. So thats how “Riding with Aunt DDot” turned into a moving image project — a short film that we will be going to production on soon.

I grew up in the suburbs outside Detroit, and it’s interesting to me how little information about public transit issues you’re exposed to there. I think the popular narrative about the public transit system in the suburbs characterizes it as just something you use if you can’t afford a car, and the people who use it are people who, for whatever reason, can’t get it together to get a car. I was originally drawn to your work because you see the bus and the people on it in your photos, but you don’t see that same narrative. Could you tell me about what doing this project has shown you about that kind of narrative?

Well, it’s a lot like what you said, but I think what I found to be the most surprising is that not only do folks in the suburbs think that you only take the bus if you have to, but even the people who take the bus think that way about themselves. On the bus, I hear people saying things all the time like “You know, I’m only on here ’til I make it,” “I’m only on here ’til I get my car back,” “I’m only on here ’til…” It’s as though the bus weren’t a part of the city. It’s othered not only by people who don’t ride the bus or don’t live in the city, but by the people riding the bus themselves, which just seems really unhealthy and mind-blowing for those of us on the bus.

Bree Gant. “53,” 2016. From the series Riding with Aunt DDot.

It’s very interesting to me to hear that people on the bus talk loudly and openly about how they’re only there on a temporary basis. Especially given how if you were in any other major city in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, you’d never hear anything like that. People on the bus are just commuting and there isn’t that same judgement attached to it. You talked a bit about how a goal of this project is to shift that attitude — I’m wondering what else this project has taught you about the bus and whether it has shifted your attitudes at all.

I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that there’s just so much culture on the bus. Another influence for us doing the film project or the film aspect of this is culture. Street culture and street fashion, especially. Noting how many trends — straight from the street — go to the runway. There isn’t that much room for even claiming inspiration because there are so many things that just get blatantly repeated on the runway and claimed as originality when really it’s just that we aren’t aware when these people with power have excavated these cultural traditions from us. A lot of my thoughts while riding the bus … I really want the resources and the money that’s coming into the city to reach the bus, but I hope that gentrification never reaches the bus because there’s just so much culture and originality there.

Every day when I get on the bus, I will almost always hear somebody say “happy holidays” for whatever the nearest holiday is. Or just, “Be blessed, have a great day.” People do mask readings on the bus, or just touch the people they know. And it’s not even about being friendly. It’s just about, like, acknowledging that these are people. These are humans. You don’t have to be chipper and say, “Hey, how are you doing!” to everybody that you see on the bus. But there are acknowledgements. Even if you’re having a bad day, you say, “Good morning.” “Excuse me.” You say, “God bless.” It’s not about everyone being friends or networking or protocol or manners. It’s just about acknowledging the humanity of one another. That happens in the little moments like that where you see someone and say “Hey, what’s up?” Or all the times I’ve sat on the bus and heard, “Keep your head up baby girl, things are getting better.”

The conversations around politics … When people want to claim that folks in the hood aren’t aware about what’s going on, there are conversations about gentrification and Trump on the bus every single day. And no, it’s not the same language we see or hear on the TV or in the newspaper, but I think that’s good! It also shows that the media and newspapers need to catch up with the people they’re trying to keep informed, or it shows who they are trying to keep informed. They’re not really trying to reach out to the people who actually live in the city and keep them informed. They’re reaching out to their constituents and the people that are paying for it.

Now, everything on the bus isn’t all peaches and sunshine. Some of the things that have stood out most were conversations around young men having a place to be in the city and staying out of trouble after a fight broke out between some high school students on the bus. And then conversations around sexuality, which are usually not PC at all. This is something I find very interesting and am enjoying seeing among a lot of young Black contemporary writers — discussions about the hood’s understanding of what’s politically correct and what’s just right. Building morals and ethics.

There are folks, plenty, hella homophobic, transphobic, sexist people on the bus, but there will almost always be a voice or voices who at the end of the day bring it back to humanity. There’s a groundedness in that they’ll say people have a right to live their lives and that shit has nothing to do with me. So there is a greater understanding about humanity and what it means to support a community, even if we don’t agree about how it’s spoken about. You don’t get that space of conversation anywhere else.

How does that awareness impact your documentary process?

That really gives me a lot of motivation to start shooting. But beyond that, it’s also just a visibility thing. Showing who’s on the bus. That’s another thing I hear all the time about the bus. The few times you encounter someone who’s willing to have a conversation about the bus system, they often say that there’s a certain type of person on the bus, and I’m like “What kind of person is that?” Because I’m on the bus. I take the bus, so what are you trying to say? What does a person who takes the bus look like?

Then the mental health aspect of it is very important to me. That’s another reason why we have other people who are living on the street. But people from all class levels are dealing with mental health. Some folks have insurance to get help for it, and some folks don’t. So when your medication looks like therapy and medication, it’s not surprising when someone who can’t afford that … their therapy looks like whiskey and weed on the bus. It happens. For us to other that is so negative, especially when it just serves to define ourselves as better. It’s so pointless! It just doesn’t make sense. And it especially doesn’t make sense to bring the bus into that othering, because the bus is a cornerstone of a city.

That awareness also impacts the activism aspect of this project. I’ve been working on it with another artist, Hanniyah Cross, or Honey, as she goes by for most of her work. She holds similar opinions and we’re in the same boat. We consider ourselves “insider outsiders,” given that we’re curating shows, winning grants, but at the end of the day we’re showing up to these events on the bus. We realize that activism has to come with that. Yes, because we are transit-dependent riders, but also because we are able to cross class lines because we were raised in Detroit, but attended honors programs and were always supported. We know how to maneuver in certain spaces. Theoretically we could save up and get ourselves a car, but that’s not who we are. You shouldn’t need to have a car when you’re living in a major city. And just us being on the bus is transformative work. Especially us being on the bus and showing people that we’re on the bus.

I’d also like to add that traditionally, especially in the history of Western society, art has not always been done from the perspective of the subject. That’s why so many things are being done “on” Detroit and not “from” Detroit — we’ve seen so many people coming from outside and documenting. There is a process in doing work that separates the artist from the subject, but there is a power inherently created when the people of the community are creating for the community.

Bree Gant. “Honey and Whitney,” 2016. From the series Riding with Aunt DDot.

On the topic of activism, I understand this project has involved working with activist groups in the city…

We paired up with the Transit Justice Team at the People’s Platform. Detroit People’s Platform is a group of organizers doing social justice work in the city. They advocate for transit-dependent riders in Detroit.

I’m not familiar with them — what kind of work do they do?

One of their most recent campaigns was for people who needed to travel along Woodward. You know, from when they finished the Q-Line* up until now January, there was no bus service downtown. From Grand Circus Park to the river, there was almost no bus service. So the Transit Justice Team did research, developed petitions and canvassed to collect signatures. They were eventually able to approach Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) with plans and statistics. That led DDOT to reroute some of their lines to provide more service downtown. The Grand River line will now go past the Rosa Parks Depot all the way to Jefferson. That will make it much easier to transfer lines or get all the way downtown, especially if you’re coming from the West Side.

How has working with them impacted your thoughts on transit in the city and on the role your project plays in all of this? 

We first got hooked up with the Detroit Narrative Agency fellowship and this grant in August 2016. It really got rolling that fall when the RTA proposal was on the ballot. There’s been a lot of feelings among myself and co-collaborators and folks on the bus since then. Mostly, I didn’t know very much about the proposal before voting on it — which that, for one, I was very disappointed in. Just the availability of information and digestible information. I didn’t know very recently — like, until a couple months ago — that if that proposal was passed and it had an effect on the Q-Line, the city would have to take over paying for the Q-Line eventually.

That just makes no sense to me, so now I’m kind of glad that it didn’t happen. There was just no win for that proposal. There were plenty of people, especially who are aware of transit organizing and take the bus, who voted no for that proposal. It took away funding from Detroit and gave more to SMART. It took power away from the DDot transportation system and spread it out more among the metropolitan region. It sounded like DDot would just get sent back to the dark ages, even if we got funding for an improved rapid transit system.

I’m glad that the conversation is happening, but there are still frustrations. One, there haven’t been any conversations about the stigma of being on the bus, so I’m hoping that there will be more visual representations … even the social media posts that we try to do. We just want it to be like, “Hey, we’re on the bus and it’s OK!” And then if the stigma gets changed, it doesn’t matter about the shiny new buses that are coming out. Though I am excited about the fact that there’s gonna be a bus to the airport that isn’t a ridiculously long ride. It’s exciting, but it is top down, like most of the development that’s going on in the city. And it’s missing major pockets of the city.

People who actually ride the bus, I’m interested in talking to those people — it’s also a problem that they think it’s a temporary situation or they think that they are somehow less than for riding the bus. If you feel that way about riding the bus, then you won’t take responsibility for changing it. You won’t care about it if you’re othering yourself from it and you’re pretending like you don’t depend on it. That’s one my favorite quotes from Grace Lee Boggs — you can’t change a place unless you feel a responsibility for it. I think there’s no one willing to take responsibility for DDOT, or very few people are willing to take responsibility for it. And until that changes, there will always be shiny new additions from outside that aren’t really going to help the people that really depend on the bus for transportation.

Considering that sense of community engagement, I was very surprised to see that the piece in Art21 Magazine discussed your work alongside Scott Hocking. Just the quality of the images is so different. He’s going into abandoned buildings or abandoned factories and making an art installation that is very inorganic, in a certain way. There’s obviously an organic element in that you see the underbrush in the building and remnants of organic things, but at the end of the day it’s a sort of lifeless image — not to say that the images are dull, but rather that they just lack living matter. In your images, on the other hand, there’s this abundance of life and community. What are your thoughts on seeing your work placed next to his in that way?

One of the reasons that I’m a huge fan of my friend Taylor Aldridge, who wrote the piece, and what I appreciate about the piece and that juxtaposition is she makes it clear that documentary photography is a relevant subject in fine art. These images were taken on the street, but they were taken with the intention to show that they belong in a gallery as much as the work by artists like Scott Hocking does. The only reason the folks on the bus in Detroit aren’t in the gallery is there needs to be someone saying that it’s OK for this work to be in that space. A lot of people know that already — especially people who are on the ground doing the work.

Underground artists know that their work could be in these galleries, but there just hasn’t been someone there to say that it should be. Sometimes, they aren’t even saying that themselves. People pick me out among other artists as someone who puts their work out there a lot, and that’s because I’m someone who has always known where my work deserves to be. It’s just as relevant to be seen by folks on the bus, especially the people I’m taking pictures of, as it is to be in galleries. It’s necessary for this work to be seen in both spaces in order for it to have the weight that I intend when I take the photo. And I think the juxtaposition is necessary to give weight and relevance to both works. There’s a context shift that happens that says, yes, this is the street of Detroit, but it’s relevant to the gallery world and contemporary art world.

*The QLine — so named for its main corporate sponsor, Quicken Loans — is a controversial streetcar system that went into service in Detroit on May 12, 2017. The line runs along Woodward Avenue for 3.3 miles from the southern end of Downtown to Grand Boulevard. Business owners and city leaders have projected that it will energize economic development in the city’s Midtown and Downtown areas. Transit activists and many local Detroiters, on the other hand, have criticized city government’s willingness to invest in public transit for a highly walkable, increasingly gentrified section of Detroit that is already experiencing an economic revival while ignoring vast swathes of the city that lack reliable public transit.

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