“Bone Black” and the Ubiquity of Ruin

By Alexia Zolenski (‘22)

Editor’s Note: The opinions present in this work are those of the author, Alexia Zolenski, alone, and do not represent those of Mr. Hocking.

It’s summer in Detroit, Michigan. Between the lofty tower of the GM Renaissance Center and the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle lies the city’s Warehouse District. As the sun beats down upon a collection of abandoned buildings, the former home of Northern Engineering Works stands, its dull red brick glowing brighter, albeit slightly, in the rays. From the outside, the building seems devoid of life, completely vacant; the faded “Northern Engineering Works” sign and “Cranes Northern Hoists” sign below it are barely perceptible, wane, ghostly. And yet, there are signs of life. Across the Detroit River, a Canadian flag dips and swerves in the wind, and at night, Detroit’s brilliant skyline, usually invisible to visitors, concealed by the city’s tunnel-like, half-moon highway system, shines proudly. 

The Engineering Works, too, displays its own sign of life, in the form of Scott Hocking’s installation “Bone Black.” Displayed in the Assembly Bay building of Northern Crane from June to October of 2019, “Bone Black” was commissioned as part of the exhibit Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality and the series Material Detroit for Cranbrook Art Museum. Blogger “Nailhed,” who explores abandoned buildings in the Detroit area as an “outlet for [his] scholarly interests,” describes the factory as “one of the few remaining vestiges of pre-automobile era industry in Detroit,” and stated, upon visiting in 2014, that “there was no way [he] could pass this up.” (1) It seems that Hocking and curator Laura Mott of Cranbrook Academy felt similarly, but unlike Nailhed’s ignorant consumption of Northern Crane’s ruins, Hocking adds something to the space, and Northern Crane adds something in return; the installation’s placement within Northern Engineering Works is crucial in understanding “Bone Black.” In fact, every part of “Bone Black” tells a different, albeit necessary, story, with each part contributing and working in concert with the other. The diversity present in Hocking’s installation “Bone Black” is indicative of the ubiquity of ruin; while “Bone Black” recognizes the automobile industry as culpable in Detroit’s ruin, the installation tells a greater story of an expansive ruin, ruin that has happened before, and will happen after, Detroit’s story is complete.

Upon entering the abandoned Northern Engineering Works, “Bone Black” astonishes. Inside a large, dim, warehouse, multi-colored boats hang from the ceiling. At the back of the warehouse, light peeks through miniature windows, and in the middle, a pile of cinder blocks ominously looms, damaged boat parts peeking out in spots. Though the boats are colorful, they are run down, tired; some are adorned in graffiti, while others seem glossed with a translucent, black sheen (2). The scene isn’t decidedly happy or sad but instead allows the viewer to decide. That’s how Hocking likes it. “There are people who come to art installations that, if you’re there,” he says, “look at it for two seconds, turn to you, and immediately say, ‘So, what’s this all about?’, but I don’t want to tell everyone, well, ‘Here’s everything for you!’” (3) Instead, “Bone Black” seems to ask more than it answers, posing a series of questions to the viewer: Why are plants peeking out of the boats, and why are there boats in the first place? Or perhaps, more importantly: Where am I, and where are these boats going? 

“Bone Black” is site-specific, and an integral part of the installation is its location adjacent to the Detroit River. Though much has changed in Detroit, one thing has remained consistent: the importance of the Detroit River to Detroit’s industry. Contrary to popular imagination, Detroit was not only the car capital of the world. Dredging in the Detroit River from 1874 to 1968 created 96.5 kilometers of shipping channels, “all in the service of commercial shipping in the Great Lakes.” (4) This made the city a hub for commerce, and in 1872, the river handled “nearly one-third of all waterborne traffic in the United States.” (5) The Detroit River was also a conduit for recreation, with families spending leisure time at Belle Isle and Boblo Island Amusement Park. In creating “Bone Black,” Hocking purposefully highlights the former cornucopia of Detroit’s shipping industry while intimating trouble to come. On one hand, the ships face West, the same direction as the flow of the Detroit River. This recalls the harmony of Detroit’s people with Detroit’s industry, suggesting that before the automobile industry caused Detroit’s dip towards ruin, Detroit was very much not ruined. In fact, Detroit was thriving. 

On the other hand, Detroit’s shipping industry is not as prosperous now as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the Detroit-Windsor Rail Tunnel was completed in 1910, it caused a “slow breaking-down of the hegemony of the shipping industry.” (5) This, combined with the subsequent introduction of planes, automobiles, and Ford, led to the ruin of the shipping industry in Detroit. That ruin is where the site-specificity of “Bone Black” emerges: a railroad track used to run directly through Northern Engineering Works. Symbolically, when one looks at “Bone Black,” it seems as if a train could blast through the warehouse, ruining the boats Hocking had hung, just as the railroad industry blasted through the shipping industry in Detroit.

The ruin of the shipping industry parallels another type of ruin currently happening in Detroit: the boats that Hocking used to construct “Bone Black.” Hocking lugged the boats from various locations around Detroit, where they had been left, abandoned. Referred to by Hocking as “shipwrecks,” the boats are left abandoned because they are costly to dispose of or repair (3). This speaks to several layers of ruin in Detroit. Hocking grew up in Redford Township, “a little white trash border town on the Northwestern border of Detroit.” (3) He states that when he was a kid, “it was [full of] very poor white people, like our family, who were racist… and couldn’t afford to be any further from the Black communities of Detroit… but didn’t want to be in the city of Detroit proper.” (3) By dumping these boats downtown, residents of fringe Detroit treat the city as a landfill, a place that holds, and is, trash. Detroit’s population is nearly 80% Black. By dumping their boats in the city, fringe Detroiters treat urban Detroit as disposable, and perhaps, Black people as disposable. They, unable to afford proper disposal of their boats, are slightly ruined themselves, but by dumping their boats far from their own homes, they are attempting to define ruin as something other, something separate; like ruin porn, Detroit’s ruin is something they like to observe, gawk at, and gaze upon triumphantly, rather than be. 

Despite this, Hocking faces these decrepit, derelict boats to the West. The boats are ruined, but the river is permanent, and even today, recreation in Detroit centers around the Detroit Riverwalk, which itself passes through the Warehouse District. The Detroit River has, and always will, flow West. The Detroit River has, and always will, be central to the identity of Detroit. By facing the boats to the West, Hocking suggests that both prosperity and ruin, just like the river, have, and always will, endure in Detroit. By describing a Detroit both prosperous and ruinous, pre- and post- the automobile industry, Hocking suggests not only the cyclical nature of ruin, but its ubiquity. He subverts the one-noted, single story typically told about Detroit—its rise and fall by Ford—and suggests that the story of the automobile industry isn’t the whole story of Detroit.

Another of Detroit’s stories is that of Michigan Carbon Works. The rise of the railroad industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries coincided with the exploitation of another valuable commodity: bison. Historian Ted Steinberg argues that “in many instances, Native Americans exploited the landscape in a way that maintained species population and diversity.” (6) Due to the arrival of Europeans, however, the bison population was severely thinned by the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. Though bison were commonly hunted for their flesh and hide, they eventually became prized for a different part: their bones. By 1868, people began buying and selling bison bones when the railroads reached the Great Plains. This made it profitable to send the bones to the East, resulting in “a myriad of bone pickers scavenging the prairies.” (7) While “this $40,000,000 commerce brought money to the Great Plains at a time when many residents there needed the income simply to survive,” it serves as a poignant reminder of a depleted bison population formerly “experienced… on a number of different levels,” including morally, spiritually, and practically, by the Native Americans of the Great Plains (8, 9).

Back East, the bison bones were distilled into animal charcoal, then used, among other things, to filter and purify syrup and manufacture glue, foot oil, and fertilizer. One such company, founded in 1873, was Michigan Carbon Works. Located in Detroit, Michigan, Carbon Works “had become ‘unquestionably the largest industry of Detroit,’ producing 20,000 tons of fertilizer each year in addition to substantial amounts of other bone-derived products” by 1894 (10). An issue of the Hartford Weekly Herald from May 13, 1893 proclaims “Farmers! Use the old Reliable HOMESTEAD Bone Black FERTILIZER for your Spring Crops. High Grade, Best Quality. Manufactured by Michigan Carbon Works, Detroit, Mich.” (11) Another advertisement for Michigan Carbon Works in a paper from Owosso, Michigan states that “Every one who goes to the WORLD’S FAIR should see OUR EXHIBIT and Model of our works in the Agricultural Building.” (12) A postcard published by the Calvert Lith Co. in Detroit depicts two farmers whose fields are side-by-side. The first farmer’s corn crop is small, and the farmer himself looks distraught, even disheveled, while the other farmer’s crop is rich and lush, with the farmer is dressed in a neat, orange suit. The neat farmer, gesturing to his crops, urges the other farmer to “Use the Homestead Bone Black Fertilizer,” because he “can double [his] crop of Corn by using a little HOMESTEAD FERTILIZER, it’s a good investment and DON’T YOU FORGET IT.” (13) 

Advertisements for Michigan Carbon Works’ Homestead Bone Black Fertilizer span the country, from Michigan to Kansas to Texas. The Carbon Works was an incredible asset to Detroit, but few people know the story; it is overshadowed by the story of the automobile industry. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the industry’s expansiveness is a photo taken at Michigan Carbon works in the mid-1870s. The photo depicts two, well-dressed businessmen perched upon a stack of over 180,000 bison skulls like Thoreau on Katahdin (14). The photo is surreal, haunting, an honest depiction of success riding on death’s coattails, and vice versa. This is the dichotomy dissected by Hocking in “Bone Black.”

In addition to the Homestead “Bone Black” Fertilizer produced by Michigan Carbon Works, the company also produced a “Bone Black” pigment. This pigment, used in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art and even used by famous Dutch painter Rembrandt, is the namesake of Hocking’s installation, “Bone Black.” (15) The boats, some hanging from the ceiling of the installation, some resting on the ground, are all painted in varying coats of “Bone Black” pigment. On some, the coat is deep, dark, nearly opaque, while on others, the coat is light, shimmering, nearly translucent. Hocking calls it “a wash of ghostly black.” (3) By coating the boats in different layers of “Bone Black” pigment, Hocking suggests the complexity of the layers that make up Detroit. In some places, Detroit is buried beneath ruin, like the boats buried in a deep coat of the “Bone Black” pigment, while in others, the spirit of Detroit shines through, suggesting the endurance of Detroit’s people and the possibilities that lay in Detroit’s future.

Simultaneously, Hocking calls attention to the fraught history, not only of Detroit, but of the United States. Ruin isn’t something that merely exists; it is caused. Industrial ruin, in Detroit and elsewhere, is caused by mass industry. Hocking investigates this by delving into the origin of the “Bone Black” pigment. While Native Americans had a sustainable relationship with the bison of the Great Plains, the arrival of Europeans caused massive ruination of the bison population (6). More so, the arrival of Europeans caused massive ruination of Native American bodies and homes, still visible today in efforts to abuse Native American lands, like the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, through endeavors like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Ignorance of that ruination is visible in the United States’ continual celebration of Columbus Day. Ignorance of that ruination is visible in the haughty, proud poses of the businessmen in the Michigan Carbon Works photo, as they stand up a pile of, quite literal, death. “We,” they seem to mock, “are still alive.” And yet, the ruination of the bison population brought prosperity to the poor of the Great Plains, and simultaneously, to Detroit. In fact, Michigan Carbon Works has endured for over 150 years, through the ruination caused by the automobile industry, and still exists in Detroit today. While researching for “Bone Black,” Hocking discovered that the “branch of the company that made the paint… is still right in Metro Detroit” and “called them up, went there, and bought a bag of this bone char.” (3) The prosperity of Michigan Carbon Works was born out of the ruination of the bison, and by using the “Bone Black” pigment , Hocking investigates this dichotomy.

At Michigan Carbon Works, a major use of “Bone Black” was in the creation of Homestead Bone Black Fertilizer. There’s something symbolic about the bones, the remnants of the ruination of the bison, being used as fertilizer to create new life. Death being used as the fuel for seeds, sprouts popping up gleefully in the fields, then being used as fuel for us, for humans, for Detroit. Here, Hocking again calls attention to the cycles of birth and death, prosperity and ruin, but also questions the connotation surrounding the “bone” itself. He asks his audience to ponder the meaning of “bones.” While bones are the foundation of the human body, the literal shell upon which we are built, bones are also spooky, creepy, placed as decorations outside of homes on Halloween. They remind us of our mortality, the potential we have for a rich, fulfilling life, but also devastating, inevitable decay. For a city, this raises questions of futurity: the futurity of its people, the futurity of Detroit. The “Bone Black” pigment, complex itself, is painted on the boats, also complex, which are then placed so that they seemingly “go with the flow” of the Detroit River. At the center of “Bone Black,” a pile of rubble and mangled boat parts sits, reminiscent of the pile of 180,000 bison skulls at Michigan Carbon Works, recalling a lost American Dream. This juxtaposition raises questions of Detroit’s futurity, and these “shipwrecks” highlight the impermanence, both of prosperity and ruin. Hocking states that “the idea that somehow a city dies, to me, is false because it’s really just a part of ebbs and flows, tides, birth, life, decay, death, re-birth: cycles,” and that “there are no endings.” (3) Despite the ruination of America caused by mass industry, the automobile industry wasn’t the beginning, or the “ending” of, Detroit.

Like life and death, prosperity and ruin, beginnings and “endings,” Hocking’s work is also cyclical. Throughout “Bone Black,” the hanging boats were gradually taken down, some hanging halfway suspended, others completely grounded, and still others, vanished. The evolution, captured by photograph, is haunting, but beautiful; there’s a sense of loss, as the boats are taken down, but also a sense of hope, as light streams through windows at the back of Northern Engineering Works, windows previously covered by paint, but revealed by Hocking’s meticulous scraping. By mode of photography, Hocking conveys a level of permanence, prosperity and ruin immobilized in time, immobilized in Detroit. Part of Hocking’s agreement with Cranbrook was that, at the end of the exhibit, Cranbrook would pay for the boats to be disposed of properly. Most of the boats are fiberglass, which cannot be recycled (except, according to Hocking, by some obscure place in Germany), so the boats were crushed, then placed in the trash. This, too, intimates the cycle of prosperity and ruin; though ruination of the Earth is evident in the boats’ dispatch to the landfill, there’s hope that, because these boats are no longer on the street, they no longer inflict negative symbolic capital on Detroit.

The site-specificity of “Bone Black” is essential, and in installing “Bone Black” at Northern Engineering Works, Hocking uses art to transform the symbolic capital, not only of the abandoned Northern Engineering Works, but the rest of the abandoned buildings around Detroit. Though Cranbrook’s lawyers were unable to negotiate public entrance into the space, Hocking invited visitors (somewhat illegally) inside. This is where Hocking’s work differs from ruin porn. Ruin porn ignores the cause, history, and reality of ruin, and in most ruin porn, the ruined space is devoid of people. By physically inviting people into an abandoned space, Hocking is inviting visitors to think of Detroit as the people who live there, rather than the ruin left by the automobile industry. He is transforming something abandoned, or illegal, into something peopled, or approachable, encouraging visitors to look at the entirety of Detroit through this same lens. Furthermore, while the space recognizes the ruination caused by the automobile industry and mass industry in general, it highlights the successes of Detroit that may be overshadowed, such as its expansive shipping industry and the endurance of Michigan Carbon Works. Though these industries have their own nuance, they point to the perseverance of “Detroiters” and highlight their continued presence, even through the ruination left in the wake of the automobile industry. In illuminating this, Hocking combats the notion that the story of the automobile industry is the only story that Detroit has to tell, shifting the blame onto the mass industry and automobile industry that actually caused the ruination, and off its people.

The people of Detroit have a rich history, some good, some bad, but through ample symbolism, Hocking highlights the achievements of these people and hints at achievements soon to be. In “Bone Black,” trees peek out of the boats, giving a sense of life birthed out of death, much like the plants birthed out of fertilizer from the death of the bison industry. To me, this hopefully nods at the “Greening of Detroit” occurring throughout and around Detroit’s Innovation District, considering the evolution of Cass Corridor and Tech Town. By transiently showcasing “Bone Black,” rather than installing it permanently, Hocking underscores his own ephemerality. He indicates the potential evolution of the space, post-“Bone Black,” and recognizes that the symbolic capital of Northern Engineering Works is something that will continually evolve, both positively and negatively. In being there, Hocking transformed the space’s symbolic capital, but in leaving, he opened the door for change, based simply on how the city evolves. This indicates, once again, that Detroit’s story isn’t just the story of the automobile industry; in the future, Detroiters have the opportunity to combat the narrative surrounding their city, and in fact, do so just by occupying a space like Detroit.

That said, “Bone Black” was commissioned by Cranbrook, located in rich, white, suburban Bloomfield Hills. Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality showcases ruin in places like South Korea and the Soviet Union, and like Hocking, demonstrates the cycle of prosperity and ruin in places outside Detroit. It would be easy, out of context, to compare the ruin of South Korea and the Soviet Union to a place like Hiroshima, as many have done with Detroit. Furthermore, it would be easy for suburban Bloomfield Hills to treat all aspects of Landlord Colors, no matter the city, as ruin porn. The current attitude surrounding Detroit, often adopted by people from the suburbs, is the idea that “Detroit Hustles Harder.” They walk into the Eastern Market, speed down a couple of stairs, plaster a “Detroit vs. Everybody” t-shirt to their chest, and leave as quickly as they came. It doesn’t bode well for Detroit for white suburbanites to act as if they’re the ones hustling harder, when in fact, the people who live in urban Detroit are the ones doing all the hustling. This is why site-specificity is crucial for “Bone Black.” While Landlord Colors strays towards ruin porn, “Bone Black” contextualizes the history of Detroit, with a mind toward futurity. As stated by Hocking, “When I think of Detroit, I don’t just think of the auto industry. I think of everything that’s happened here.” (3) “Bone Black” demonstrates that “death [is] only a step in the process… just part of the natural cycle.” (3) This is the natural cycle of Detroit. 

Alexia Zolenski is a Biological Sciences and History major at the University of Notre Dame. Her essay was originally written for Professor Erika Doss’ American Studies course, ‘American Ruins.’ Her primary research interest is spatial history, investigating how built and natural space shapes how people live, work, and think. She hopes to write her thesis on Detroit.


  1. Nailhed. “Northern Exposure.” Spring 2014. https://www.nailhed.com/2014/08/northern-exposure.html
  2. Hocking, Scott. Bone Black. 2019. Photograph. http://www.scotthocking.com/boneblack.html
  3. Hocking, Scott. Interview by Alexia Zolenski. Personal Interview over Zoom. November 2020.
  4. Swayamprakash, Ramya. “Dredge a River, Make a Nation Great: Shipping Commerce and Territoriality in the Detroit River, 1870-1905.” Michigan Historical Review 45, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 27.
  5. Swayamprakash, Ramya. “Dredge a River, Make a Nation Great: Shipping Commerce and Territoriality in the Detroit River, 1870-1905.” Michigan Historical Review 45, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 28.
  6. Steinberg, Ted. Down To Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 16.
  7. Barnett, Leroy. “The Buffalo Bone Commerce On the Northern Plains.” North Dakota History 39, no. 1 (Winter 1972): 23.
  8. Barnett, Leroy. “The Buffalo Bone Commerce On the Northern Plains.” North Dakota History 39, no. 1 (Winter 1972): 24.
  9. Steinberg, Ted. Down To Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 20.
  10. Barnett, Leroy. “The Buffalo Bone Commerce On the Northern Plains.” North Dakota History 39, no. 1 (Winter 1972): 41.
  11. Michigan Carbon Works. “Farmers! Use the Old Reliable Homestead Bone Black Fertilizer.” Advertisement in Hartford Weekly Herald, May 13, 1.
  12. Michigan Carbon Works. “Every One Who Goes to the World’s Fair Should See Our Exhibit.” Advertisement in Owosso Times, May 26, 1893, 3.
  13. Michigan Carbon Works. “Use the Homestead Bone Black Fertilizer.” 1870-1900. Postcard by Calvert Lith. Co. in the Detroit Public Library: Digital Collections, Detroit.
  14. Men Standing with Pile of Buffalo Skulls. 1892. Photograph. Detroit Public Library: Digital Collections, Detroit.
  15. Natural Pigments. “Bone Black Pigment.” https://www.naturalpigments.com/bone-black-pigment.html.

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