Art X Detroit – New Works in the Public Realm

Public Address invited Cezanne Charles to guest blog about Art X Detroit. See also her earlier post on Transitions, Transformations, and Traditions – Artist’s Role in the De-industrial City.

Art X Detroit was a five-day multidisciplinary celebration that exclusively presented newly commissioned works created by the 2008-2010 Kresge Eminent Artists and Artists Fellows, from April 6-10, 2011 with an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit ( MOCAD) and public art continuing to April 24, 2011. An exciting program of dance and musical performances, literary readings, workshops, panel discussions, public art and special exhibitions, Art X Detroit was hosted at more than a dozen venues located throughout Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center and was free to the public. Art X Detroit is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

For this first outing audiences were given the opportunity to cloud spot and shoe gaze. They could make and march wire cars in an inspired dream cruise. They could brixelate their city online and see their brixelations on buildings throughout midtown. They could view a new permanent work of public art from one of Detroit’s legendary artists and for 5 days they could pound the pavement of Detroit’s cultural corridor that encompasses Cass, Woodward and John R from Hendrie to Harper. Just the pedestrian activity that these 5 days generated made this car town feel like a different city. The festival attracted standing room only crowds for the majority of the events and a packed to capacity opening at MOCAD with live performances ensured a highly charged start to it all. While April 6 – 7 at Rust Belt to Artist Belt were devoted to discussing and showing the way that artists and creative practitioners can transform a region through a hybrid and socially engaged practice, Art X Detroit presented how artists can transform a region through – art.

This was ecstatic practice from the Kresge Eminent Artists and Artist Fellows. The public art included what will be a new permanent work by Charles McGee, Spirit Renewal.

Cloudspotting and Detroit Weather: 365 days video projection © Susan Goethel Campbell. Photo Cezanne Charles

Artist Susan Goethel Campbell offers us a guide to Cloudspotting Detroit, which focuses on the unique atmosphere of Detroit. The accordion-style brochure includes a key to identify cloud types and a map showing a bike route to interesting cloud spots in the city. Clouds in this case are manmade and often the result of industry, but there are also natural cloud formations included. Wheelhouse Detroit will be arranging guided tours of the suggested route later this season. This is a different point of view of Detroit – science meets art, meets phenomena and eventually meets bikes.

Wire Car Cruise, Video Projection: a Dance for Diego; Sculptural Object: me me me © Chido Johnson. Photo Cezanne Charles

Chido Johnson’s Wire Car Cruise is a public performance/action – a wire-car cruise on the historical Woodward Avenue was performed to the formation of Detroit’s version of Soul Train, The Scene. The participants made their dream car and chose their favorite cruising song for the performance. The cruising music and wire-cars made by diverse communities within Detroit, its vicinity and others as far as Zimbabwe, was exhibited in the lobby of the old Dalgleish Cadillac Dealership, now TechTown and a video, titled a Dance for Diego documenting the performance was shown at MOCAD. Chido, a native Zimbabwean, creates cross-cultural transpositions and transformations in his work making links between Detroit, the US and Africa. In this case the making of wire cars pushed with sticks is a cultural practice popular in the southern and central regions of Africa and Woodward Avenue is where the Highland Park Ford Plant became the first automobile production facility in the world to implement the assembly line. Woodward Avenue for years served as the home of the US auto industry and in the 50s spawned woodwarding or crusing the boulevard.

Brixels © Cedric Tai. Photo Cezanne Charles

Cedric Tai created the project Brixels, a web-based and physical mural project for midtown Detroit. Tai’s Brixel project is designed as a “generative piece of art, that evokes textiles and Razzle Dazzle Battleships from WWI by drawing parallels between the camouflaged ships that eluded their enemies and a city that avoids being reduced to an essentialized narrative.” Visitors were asked to join the process through creating their own tessellations at

Street Folk © Tyree Guyton. Photo Cezanne Charles

Finally, inestimable and inimitable Tyree Guyton created the public installation Street Folk, formed from 10,000 paired and unpaired discarded and donated shoes. This piece highlighted the plight of the homeless in Detroit and once again sees him using his abilities to engage critically into the social and environmental fabric of the city.

The public art that was part of Art X Detroit really didn’t deal with a broken city or its broken buildings, which perhaps is both compliment and critique in general to the public art that largely is created by artists that are located here. Much of the public depictions that come by way of the New York Times and recent photo books of the city follow the formula of ruin porn – and while some of the photography is beautiful, haunting and yes filled with promise and opportunity – it is harder perhaps to depict the illusive, ephemeral and transient. This is exactly what these artists have tried to capture. As exciting as these projects were, for me it was the public coming out in droves for a series of art events that will stay with me now that Art X Detroit has come to a close.

Cezanne Charles is an artist and curator who co-founded the hybrid art & design practice rootoftwo. She is Director of Creative Industries at ArtServe Michigan and directs the professional development program from the Kresge Artist Fellows.

Photo credits: Cezanne Charles

Art vs Audience

After teaching a class on art and social change, I have held the belief that artists need to consider the responsibility they have to their audience when creating work in public. Taking the cue of what not to do from missionaries and service learning programs that tend to have a “drop in and fix the problem” approach, I always encouraged my students to think long and hard about their artistic presence in a community. To ask themselves a series of questions related to the relevance of their work. Why here? Why now? Why me? Am I assuming to know more than my audience? In short, what gives me the right? These become important questions when you attempt to expose unsuspecting and sometimes uninformed audiences to your work.

For the most part I stand by these beliefs, although a new thought process is beginning to take place in all of this. What about experimental public art? Art that is often being figured out as the the artists goes along (much like me with this blog). Art that sometimes is created as a testing of an artistic hypothesis on the part of the artist.

I do believe that the artist has every right to conduct these types of experiments but I sense some tension when the public becomes the petri dish. One can choose to partake in a concert of experimental music or improvised dance (which if not done well can border on the tenuous line of self indulgence on the part of the musician or dancer). But innocent bystanders in the public realm may not always have that choice. What if they are not in the mood to be accosted by a public performance piece in the name of art? Or try to negotiate the space around the Tilted Arch ?

I fully embrace artistic experimentation and love love love unanticipated artistic encounters for the unsuspecting public. The wackier the better as far as I am concerned and with the advent of new technologies the possibilities are endless. I believe these two methods of working in public can co-exist but I wonder if we should (and if so how?) apply a sort of artistic social code to artists working in public in order to address the difference of art for audience and art for the artists.

Perhaps I should hedge my bet on the notion that all artists drawn to work in public posses some kind of innate desire to share beauty and thought provoking experiences with the world.